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5 January, 2016

Fill a Basket of Travel Dreams

Our touring bikes remain nestled inside the shipping boxes in the garage. We’ve swapped out our merino wool wardrobes; Kristin for an assortment of business attire, me for denim and fleece. We no longer stream pixelated movies on a thirteen-inch laptop, but now chomp our popcorn in front of 65-inches of magic that we first saw at the Sony showroom in Tokyo. I’m sitting at a table that we actually own. Things have indeed changed.

We’ve only been home for three weeks—days spent on what has felt, at times, to be one endless shopping trip—but the calendar once again hangs thick from the hook and begs the question: Where are you going to travel this year?

Map with Question Marks

If you’re like a lot of people, there are plenty of places you want to go and things you’d like to do, but maybe you struggle deciding the where, when, and how of it all. How do you decide?

Thanks to an idea I dreamed up while we were in Bali, we have an answer to that question. But where we’re going in 2016 is irrelevant. It’s how we decided that I want to share with you today!

Step 1: List Your Dreams

One of the lessons we learned early on when planning our bicycle trip was that no matter how many lines you draw across a map, you’ll never see it all. Though we returned home having toured over twenty countries, there are still countless places and activities we’d like to experience. Actually, it’s not countless. The number is 104. I know this because of the Travel Basket.

Dreams of an around-the-world tour is something that, for most people, will always remain a dream. But how about forgetting the world as a whole and just focusing on all of the places you really fancy going? Smaller trips you can customize to fit your own desire, comfort level, financial situation, and vacation allowance?

I’ve always hated the phrase “bucket list” (the term’s usage has largely diminished since the movie, thankfully), but we often hear people use that phrase when describing the things they hope to do and accomplish before dying. But how many people have actually put together such a list?

Why not?

The first step in putting together the Travel Basket is to make a list of all the places you’d like to go. I recommend doing this in a spreadsheet program so that you can easily sort by country. Go ahead and put one column for the continent, one for the country, and another for the specific sites/activities/region you wish to visit. This third column is key because it helps you be specific and offer some guidance in the future.

A sample from our travel wishlist, sorted by country. A fourth unseen column contains specific details and personal notes to be referred back to for planning purposes.

A sample portion from our travel wishlist, sorted by country. Note the multiple entries for different regions in China. A fourth unseen column contains specific details and personal notes to be referred back to for planning purposes.

We created a preliminary list just off the tops of our heads and from panning around Google Maps, but then we fine-tuned it and added plenty of detail by paging through a couple of travel-inspiration books such as “Journeys of a Lifetime” and “100 Countries, 5000 Ideas”. We also queried our Facebook followers for ideas. Large countries like the United States, China, India, and Australia ended up getting multiple entries each. We also combined some countries into a single entry, knowing they could be visited in one trip.

What you put onto this list is purely up to you and could be as specific as you wish. For example, one of our entries is a very specific trek in the Swiss Alps known as the Tour du Mont Blanc (as recommended by a FB follower), but we have other entries that are no more specific than saying “beaches, landmarks, cities.” Though it’s good to get specific in this stage to help you manage larger countries and specific activities, feel free to put “general touring” down for some of the smaller countries. Remember, you’ll have plenty of time to plan later.

Also, it’s important to note that you don’t have to include far-flung destinations and outrageous expeditions. Maybe there’s a museum nearby that you just really haven’t gotten around to visiting, or perhaps you’ve always wanted to just once live it up for a weekend in the city you commute to. This is about your lists of desires and dreams. There are no wrong answers; only a tool to help you start checking off items on your life’s wish list.

Step 2: Get Crafty

The second step is your chance to embrace your artistic talents and go as fancy as you wish… or not. Crayons and construction paper is perfectly acceptable. Anyway, the goal now is to write each of those entries in your spreadsheet down on a separate strip of paper.

We stopped by a Japanese bookstore in Seattle and picked up five sheets of handmade decorative washi and a couple of colored markers. We cut each sheet of paper into two dozen strips of paper long enough to have each country’s name and activity written on them nice and large.

Kristin carefully cutting the paper into long strips.

Kristin carefully cutting the paper into long strips.

We didn’t want the entries to be visible so we folded each one lengthwise twice and then tied the strip in a knot, much like the paper prayers get tied onto tree branches and twine at the temples in Japan. Folding the paper twice not only helps conceal the entry, but also adds enough strength so that you won’t tear it when tying the knot. Nevertheless, be careful when tightening the knot. I generally stopped as soon as the paper started to bind, at which point I just creased the knot and smoothed it out firmly against the table.

Folding each finished travel wish twice lengthwise, then tying them each into small knots.

Folding each finished travel wish twice lengthwise, then tying them each into small knots.

When done you should have a pile of knotted strips of paper, each containing a different item on your travel wish list. As I mentioned earlier, we ended up with 104 entries. I’m sure we could have had dozens more, but it felt right to stop around one hundred. That and we were starting to run out of paper.

Step 3: Fill A Basket

These pieces of paper are now the physical embodiment of your travel dreams and wishes. That’s pretty special stuff. Far too special for a mere bucket. Find yourself a nice vessel to put your travel wishes in, whether it be a basket, a box, or something else entirely. Consider finding something with some room for additional pieces of paper to be added, that’s decorative enough to display in your home and feels worthy of the task it will be given. Think long term.

The couple that owned the house we rented in Bali also owned a bead shop in which the wife sold all of her handmade belts, jewelry boxes, and baskets. We bought a large basket with a matching lid from her specifically to house our travel wishes. It doesn’t matter where your basket comes from, but make sure that it’s something that you won’t mind looking at for years to come, as glancing at the basket and being inspired by the promise it holds is half the fun.

A pile of 104 travel wishes, ready for the Travel Basket.

A pile of 104 travel wishes, ready for the Travel Basket.

Once you have your basket, mix up all of the paper wishes so that there’s no possible way for you to know which one is which and place them into the basket. Go ahead and give it a good shake too, just to be on the safe side.

Step 4: Let Fate Decide

We’ve all heard the stories about people taking a backpack to the airport and getting on the first international flight they can find a seat on. I used to find that idea intoxicating, but I know that’s not really our style. We’ve learned to not over-plan our trips and to not try to cram too much in, but I also like having at least some time to prepare a basic itinerary.

So what if there was a way to combine the two? A way to blend the random spontaneity of going to the airport, bag-in-hand, and the need to have some time to plan? The Travel Basket is the answer.

Kristin reached in and drew the winning destination for 2016.

Kristin reached in and drew the winning destination for 2016.

Before going to bed on New Year’s night, Kristin gave the basket one final shake, took off the lid, turned her head, and drew our 2016 Travel Destination.

When I mentioned to a friend that there were a couple of entries in the basket that we would have had a really hard time pulling off this year—a cruise to Antarctica and a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway being two of the more time-consuming, costly adventures—he suggested we draw two or three and then decide which makes sense. That’s one idea. After all, we all have to face the reality that “life’s dreams” can’t always be accommodated by “present circumstance”. Fortunately, Kristin didn’t draw either of those entries. Else we would have taken a mulligan and I would have drawn an alternate location.

Aside from running out of paper, the other reason that we stopped at 104 was because we were becoming acutely aware that every additional wish reduced the chances of us drawing one of the ones we were most excited about. There was some talk about only including thirty or forty wishes for this reason. After all, if we only draw one per year, and we’re already 40 years old… you get where this is going.

We didn’t stop with just a few dozen wishes though. And the reason is because we know surprises lurk in all corners. Sure, a visit to the Baltic States might not be on par with a canoe trip down the Zambezi River, but we wanted that chance to be pleasantly surprised. And we wanted to stay true to the idea of this being a random draw of (almost) anywhere in the world.

2016 and Beyond

So Kristin reached into that basket of 104 knotted strips of paper and drew “Portugal and the Azore Islands” for our 2016 travel destination. It was a great pick! Portugal was on our original cycling route, but we ended up heading straight across Spain from north to south due to winter’s approach and the threat of snow in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. So here’s our chance to rectify that missed opportunity, albeit likely without the bicycles. Portugal is also a trip we could pull off given the limitations of American vacation allowances. To be honest, I had my fingers crossed in hopes that she’d draw something even closer to home, that we can drive to perhaps, if only just this once. A road trip to Crater Lake, Redwoods National Park, and Lake Tahoe would have been ideal. Oh well, at least it wasn’t Antarctica.

Maybe in 2018.

Portugal Sights: Photo from www.alltravelersjourney.com

That wasn’t a typo. Our hope/plan, subject to change as always, is to do a trip back to Japan every other year and draw from the travel basket on even-numbered years. Maybe in the future, when we’re older and have more time we’ll be in a position to draw from the basket every year or even twice a year, but for now, the basket is going to be in play every other year. And that’s fine for us.

The Azores: Photo from www.portugal.com.

The Azores: Photo from www.portugal.com

We heard so many of you tell us that our cycling trip inspired you to think about doing your own long-term travel. Others said they knew they couldn’t do what we did; that they had to live vicariously through us. It’s our hope that this new adventure—the Travel Basket—not only inspires, but gives everyone who reads this a tool for tackling their life’s wishes. Don’t be paralyzed by the decision: let the random hand of fate decide for you.

PS: Be sure to save the spreadsheet so you can check the contents of the basket whenever a new idea hits you. Stuff the basket with duplicate entries if you wish, but we recommend using the spreadsheet to ensure you don’t inadvertently add the same wish twice.

11 November, 2015

The Next Adventure

We were in our cabin aboard the MV Hatsu Crystal, showing the other two passengers the slideshow videos I’ve made. Iris and Wolfran smiled and commented enthusiastically as the past two years of our lives danced across the screen. I was anxious to show them the video of North America, as they had each only ever been to New York City; a crime of self-deprivation so many Europeans commit when visiting our homeland.

Kristin and I smiled upon finally queuing up the North America video, as did our audience, although for different reasons. While they oohed and aahed over the mountain scenery and the size of the bison and the raging waterfalls, we warmed with the reminders of home, one we’d eventually be returning to.

We just didn’t realize how soon.

Those in personal contact with us have known since the summer that before leaving Bali last June, we had placed a deposit down for a four-month rental house in the Penestanan area outside of Ubud. The plan was to wrap up the bicycle tour at the end of January, 2016 and then settle into a life of normalcy – whatever shape it took – in Bali. I was to spend those months working on the novel I’ve been developing over the past year and Kristin was to test the waters of remote-employment. Ideally, she’d already have a job lined up; if not, she’d spend that time conducting a job search while we lived inexpensively in Indonesia.

If you're ever in Singapore and needing a bike shop, don't hesitate to check out Soon Watt Orbea on Changi!

If you’re ever in Singapore and needing a bike shop, don’t hesitate to check out Soon Watt Orbea.

Kristin began putting feelers out at the end of summer to so see if anyone, including her former employer, was in a position to hire her remotely. Her baited hook received a few nibbles, but the rod never bent. And then, at the end of September, her efforts netted an unexpected proposal that drew our immediate attention. We spent the entirety of October in a holding pattern to see if the final offer turned out to be one she couldn’t refuse. Long days at sea were spent discussing a ceaseless stream of if/then scenarios, efforts to predict and mold into shape the remainder of this trip, and our lives going forward.

We are now very excited to share the news that our plans, as you are no doubt unsurprised to hear, have shifted yet again.

Kristin will be returning to work at her former employer, in Seattle, this coming January, helping to lead one of the company’s new initiatives. It is an opportunity that not only allows us to return to the location we love most – we’ll be house-hunting in our old neighborhood at the base of the Cascade Mountains east of the city – but also affords me the opportunity to focus full time on my fiction writing endeavors.

That beautiful Seattle skyline. Photo by Larry Gorlin.

That beautiful Seattle skyline… it won’t be long now! Photo by Larry Gorlin.

Our plans to cycle north from Singapore to Bangkok have been shelved. Instead, we have rescheduled our house rental in Bali and applied our deposit to a month’s rental, ending mid-December. Bicycle touring, to repurpose a phrase from the Peace Corps, is the hardest vacation you’ll ever love. We enjoyed this experience immensely and are thrilled to have taken it, but we’ve made our final dismount. The 52 miles we cycled from the port in Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia to Singapore were our last. Seattle to Singapore by bicycle and ship was far enough — 226 degrees of longitude without leaving the planet’s surface.

Ready for the journey home to Washington State.

Ready for the journey home to Washington State.

We arrived at the incredibly helpful Soon Watt Orbea bike shop, still sweaty from the sauna-like conditions we rode in, after dropping our bags off at a nearby hotel in this locals-only area of Singapore. We left our bikes for boxing and headed in search of lunch. That we didn’t look back or shed a tear of sadness was all the proof we needed to know that the timing was right. Nigel and his staff had the bikes boxed up by the following afternoon, leaving the boxes open so we could slide our panniers, shoes, and spare tire and miscellany down into the space around the bike.

Aerial view of Snoqualmie Falls, the iconic waterfall two short miles from the neighborhood we'll be returning to. Photo by Puget Sound Energy.

Aerial view of Snoqualmie Falls, the iconic waterfall two short miles from the neighborhood — and friends and mountain bike trails — we’ll be returning to. Photo by Puget Sound Energy.

Through much expense and several shipping-related headaches, our bicycles and touring gear have been sent ahead to our storage unit in Washington State.  We checked out of the somewhat grimy hotel near the bike shop three days later, our Ortlieb duffel bags serving as our sole luggage, and went across town for a few days, intent on giving Singapore a second chance.

We considered heading straight home, but it was always important to us that we take a few weeks to reflect on what we accomplished; to ponder what we saw and where we’ve been. Once upon a time we imagined flying to an island in the Caribbean from Tierra del Fuego, but we always knew, deep down inside, that the map you see here was, in all likelihood, for inspiration purposes only. Fortunately, we were able to shift our rental deposit from February to the present. One final month in Bali, right back where we were in May, should ease the transition and help protect us from burning out on reentry.

We know there will be some out there who will try to compare our initial plan with the ultimate path we took and feel we failed. Some will pose questions about the places we didn’t go instead of the ones we had; Negative Nancies who only see the holes in the Swiss cheese of life.  They’ll fail to see that this decision, like the one we made nine years ago to undertake this challenge, is every bit as positive. We’re excited to have done what we’ve done – cycling nearly 13,000 miles and visiting twenty or so different countries – and equally pleased to have zigged when we planned to zag. Some of our favorite moments from these two years came in places we never intended to go. And, perhaps most of all, we’re thrilled to be ending this trip in the manner that we are. When we are. On our terms.

The moss-covered forests of western Washington beckon me home. Photo by Paris Gore.

The moss-covered forests of western Washington beckon us home.  Nothing like mountain biking in the PNW! Photo by Paris Gore.

As I wrote in a guest dispatch to another blog two months ago, the thing we’ve learned most during our time abroad is the need to be flexible. To continue on just because we once drew a line on a map would be foolish. Similarly, to accept this job offer if we both weren’t fully ready to begin the next stage of life, to embark on the next adventure, would leave us with a life of regrets and what-ifs. We have none, nor expect any. We’ve taken our bikes – and this trip – as far as we wish for it to go. Six hundred days on the road (and counting) is over forty years’ worth of two-week vacations strung together. And as everyone who’s ever travelled has admitted at one time or another, we (finally) miss our own bed.

I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but I do know someone who is. And he once (allegedly) gave some rather sage advice:

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

More to Follow: TwoFarGone.com won’t be going anywhere. We’ll no doubt have at least one or two wrap-up posts in the future (in addition to a second-take on Singapore next week) and at least the occasional update on how the transition back to home – and work — goes. I will also have an update in the coming months about my new website and work-in-progress. We’ll continue to travel, naturally, and will continue to post future travel-related articles to this site.

An Open Invitation: Our most cherished souvenirs from this adventure are the memories of the friends we made along the way, and the generosity they showed towards us. We wish to extend an open invitation to everyone who hosted us, shared a meal with us, or whom we spent a day sightseeing with, to please let us know if you’re ever in the Seattle area. It would give us so much pleasure to return the favor. And if you thought we were excited when you met us on the road, just wait till you see how enthusiastically we embrace the role of tour guide back home.

2 November, 2015

Cargo Cruising the Indian Ocean

A steaming bowl of brothy, robustly seasoned, homemade chicken soup awaited us in the Officer’s Mess just minutes after we dropped our panniers off in our cabin, the Purser’s Suite. With that first spoonful, we both felt all of the stress and worry we were experiencing leading up to our meeting the freighter melt away. And in its place came the warm, comforting sensation of a welcome home hug. Albeit, aboard a temporary, floating home.

Despite our fears of the bicycles complicating the procedure, the delay of information concerning such non-trivial questions as Where do we go? and When should we be there?, the boarding process ultimately could not have gone any smoother. We received a call the day prior our departure in Piraeus, alerting us that we needed to board the ship a day early, and telling us to meet at the cruise terminal to complete the immigration check at 10:30 the next morning. Kristin and I bicycled a mile to the terminal, met the representative from the shipping agent, and got our passports cleared. From there we followed behind another man on a scooter as we pedaled 6 miles through traffic (yes, in the country we were just checked out of) around the perimeter of the Piraeus harbor to the container terminal. That’s where things got a little dicey as the port was demanding a customs form, stating that the bicycles had to be declared. This was news to us. Our escort told us to remain calm and be patient as numerous phone calls were made on our behalf and, after ten nervous minutes, the security gate finally opened and we were led to a bus. We quickly stripped the panniers, heaved them up the five stairs of the bus, and carefully threaded the bikes one by one up the stairs and between the seats in the narrow aisle. Only one hurdle stood between ourselves and a mighty sigh of relief.

Tense moments as our bikes were hoisted some 20 meters up the side of the ship from the pier.

Tense moments as our bikes were hoisted some 20 meters up the side of the ship from the pier.

The ship is enormous. In fact, up close, one does not see a ship. All you see is a 334-meter-long massive black wall of steel and several indecipherable markings in white paint. And the gangway. Given that the ship had yet to receive much of its cargo, the MV Hatsu Crystal was floating high in the water. We were told during the booking process that the bicycles would be welcome aboard so long as we were able to get them up the gangway. “No problem,” I thought, thinking back to the myriad ferries and cruise ships we’ve been on.

Problem.

The gangway in this instance was an 80-step, very steep staircase whose railing was barely waist high – the metal safety rails replaced with a loose rope in some sections – and had rounded aluminum steps. The gangway shifted a little with each footfall during our initial ascent with the first few bags. Gulp. Making matters worse, Kristin and I had our cycling shoes on, metal cleats and all. Fortunately, several members of the very friendly and helpful Filipino crew met us at the gangway, helped carry our panniers up, and offered to hoist the bikes up the side of the ship with a rope. I returned to the pier and waited for the rope, expecting some sort of net or carabiner of sorts. But when I saw that it was just a simple rope they were lowering, I sheepishly waved for one of the crew to come down to help. My knot-tying skills pretty much start and end with shoelaces; best let the sailors handle this rope business. Particularly when we’re about to dangle several thousand dollars’ worth of sentimental bicycles sixty feet above the water.

The view outside our cabin in Piraeus, Greece.

The view outside our cabin in Piraeus, Greece.

Life On Board

We likely wouldn’t have decided to spend nineteen days at sea if the cabins made available to passengers aboard cargo ships weren’t both spacious and comfortable. It was even better than the website promised. With two couches, three chairs, cabinetry, refrigerator, a television with DVD player, and a very large desk, the main living room was the most space we’ve had to enjoy since our house rental in Bali. The bedroom had an actual queen-size mattress (not two twins masquerading as a queen like in much of Europe), plenty of closet space, and a second desk. The bathroom was larger than that of most hotels.

The main living space of our cabin aboard the Hatsu Crystal.

The main living space of our cabin aboard the Hatsu Crystal.

For those who have wondered how we could spend 24 hours a day together, 7 days a week for over 19 months, I will tell you that Kristin and I agree that our favorite feature of the cabin was a door that could be shut between the two rooms. Ahhh… solitude. Where have you been?

Our bedroom and bathroom in our cabin.

Our bedroom and bathroom in our cabin.

We settled into a routine quickly: I typically woke before 6 a.m. and would get an hour or two of writing done before Kristin tapped me on the shoulder for breakfast. Meals aboard the ship were on a very strict schedule. There was only one Steward on board and he served the four passengers and all the officers their meals, delivered drinks and snacks from the “slopchest” when requested, and was also responsible for cleaning the cabins. He was a very busy man and the Captain made it clear on day one that we were to arrive during the scheduled time, to not be late, and to not linger. Conversation should be taken to the Officer’s Recreation Room or our cabins if we wanted to socialize.

Outside our cabin on F Deck, doing a little reading in the sun.

Outside our cabin on F Deck, doing a little reading in the sun.

Breakfast is from 7:30 to 8:00; lunch from 11:30 to 12:15; and dinner from 5:30 to 6:00. Additional tea/coffee service could be had at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., though we usually skipped these offerings. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, though in truth, all three meals are far heavier and more fattening than we’d prefer. Potatoes and gravy are practically standard. There are no choice of entrees, a weekly menu is posted on Monday. My only improvisation is telling the steward to hold the vegetables. I tired of eating around a pile of overcooked peas, carrots, and cauliflower; I suspect he tired of scraping my uneaten vegetable medley into the trash. The hearty meals were a nice change at first, particularly after nearly three months spent in two countries with repetitious menus. But we soon grew weary of the heavy sauce-laden food. Lunch always consists of a soup starter, followed by a meal many would consider excessive. The first day: pork cordon bleu and rice with the aforementioned chicken soup. For dinner that night it was pan-fried liver steak, mashed potatoes, and broccoli. It wasn’t long before I began asking if we could maybe have what the Filipino crew was eating instead. This only earned me a confused smile and the nightly question: potato or rice?

The captain gave us a tour of the Bridge.

The captain gave us a tour of the Bridge.

There is an on-board gym, but we both found it to be a bit on the depressing side and avoided it after our initial tour of the ship. Kristin walked ten laps around the deck each afternoon (roughly 600 meters per lap), but my exercise consisted of little more than some push-ups and lunges and the half-dozen trips up and down the stairs each day: 112 stairs round-trip, from our cabin on F-Deck to the Officer’s Mess on Deck B (we ignored the elevator in favor of this small bit of exercise). I didn’t help myself in this regard, as our first order from the stores included a kilo of Gummi Bears and a case of Warsteiner. More Gummi Bears were ordered weekly, along with wine and chocolate-covered marzipan.

A cargo cruise is certainly not for everyone. We’ve been at sea now for twelve days as I write this from the middle of the Indian Ocean and, other than the brief excitement of going through the Suez Canal (where we could see Egypt) and a port-call in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (daily notices leading to our entering Saudi waters reminded us that all alcohol as well as magazines and electronic devices containing pornography must be locked away in the Bonded Store… apparently some Saudi inspectors have run a Jpeg search on personal laptops and fined violators $500 USD for every pornographic image they found) there is nothing to see but the sea itself. We spend our days in the exact same manner each day: reading (I read three books), writing (I totaled over 50,000 words between blog posts and a work-in-progress), and playing a few computer games we installed before boarding the ship: Fairway Solitaire for Kristin and Skyward Collapse and Dwarfs! for me. We watch a movie each night, provided we can find a disc that isn’t too scratched to play and has English audio (we found none with English subtitles). That’s it. If you cannot entertain yourself through similar means, you should not even consider a trip of this type.

Ferries race across the Suez Canal between the never-ending train of cargo ships.

Ferries race across the Suez Canal between the never-ending train of cargo ships.

I have never found it difficult to entertain myself with books, but I will admit that if I did not have a writing project to occupy my hours (more about that in a future post), even I would say 19 days is a long time to spend with such little variation. Kristin secured several career-related reading recommendations before leaving and we both enjoyed Robert D. Kaplan’s very informative book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, among others. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in learning more about this corner of the world.

We were given a tour of the Engine Room, the multi-story home to a colossal 90,000 horsepower, 12-cylinder turbo diesel engine, and visited the Bridge. Human Officers are there to make corrections when the automatic systems need to be overridden, but the Bridge held little interest during general cruising. And you can be sure visitors will not be allowed to the Bridge during those times of stress. We have nearly as good of a view from the balcony outside our room.

Mountains of sand line the banks of the Suez Canal from the recent expansion.

Mountains of sand line the banks of the Suez Canal from the recent expansion.

Our fellow passengers, a seventy-something Swiss woman and a sixty-something German man are both very nice and we occasionally chat with them at meals, but the man speaks very little English (being from the former East Germany, he was forced to learn Russian as a schoolboy). The Swiss lady, Iris, is very friendly and a willing translator, but we naturally fall into our own private conversations in our native tongues. As for the officers, we seldom see them. The Chief Engineer often takes his meals at the same time as we do, and the Captain also, but few others. We haven’t seen anyone in the Officer’s Recreation Room and even the Crew Recreation Room is seldom occupied; we have yet to hear their large drum kit being played. Any thoughts about hanging out with the German officers and throwing back some beers over a game of cards should be put to rest immediately. Any socializing that takes place at all, at least on this ship, clearly happens behind closed doors.

Pirate Concerns Linger

I had two concerns about this trip before leaving: 1) going to sea for nearly three weeks with my beautiful wife… and thirty dudes, and 2) pirates. My first concern was immediately allayed by the friendly, professional manner in which everyone aboard the ship conducts themselves. Evergreen, the company that operates this ship, really runs a tight ship – sorry, I had to say it. Having researched freighter travel periodically over several years, my suggestion would be to definitely stick with one of the major European-flagged companies. Evergreen (German), Maersk-Sealand (Danish), or CMA-CGM (French).  More about this below.

Two plywood "scarecrows" to deter pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

Two plywood “scarecrows” to deter pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

As for pirates, now that we are well past the Gulf of Aden and due into Sri Lanka in two days as I write this, I don’t feel it would be bad form to relay a funny story. The summer before we left on this trip, after ten years of trying to outwit my friends, I had finally won our Fantasy Baseball league. Alas, the coveted “Least Stupid Dummy” trophy was to be mine! But the [Shady] Commish wouldn’t send it to me. Instead I got a message saying, in light of our pending adventure, the trophy was to remain in New Jersey, “Out of concern it will fall into the hands of Somali pirates.”

It was a pretty funny line in 2013, just a few months before our trip, but also a bit irrelevant since our originally planned route went nowhere near eastern Africa.  Which brings us to yesterday.

The captain arrived at lunch and asked if we saw the “suspicious vessel” earlier in the morning. We hadn’t. Apparently a vessel that didn’t show up on the Automatic Ship Identification system appeared behind us with two skiffs being towed by rope. We were already hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia, into the Arabian Sea, but the pirate threat remains present. Even though there hadn’t been a hijacking in these waters in over two years and never has a ship of this size been taken, it was reason for concern. The Captain said he accelerated from 14 knots to 21 and the vessel didn’t pursue. He said the skiffs were empty, but they may have been manned with teams of pirates, in which case the alarm would have sounded. It was more than a little suspicious and he used the opportunity to drill home why it was so important that we always call the Bridge before going for a walk on the deck.

It's not the joggig track aboard the Queen Mary 2, but we walked plenty of laps around the Upper Deck.

It’s not the joggig track aboard the Queen Mary 2, but we walked plenty of laps around the Upper Deck.

We were provided instruction on the necessary precautions before entering the High Risk Area near Eritrea, Djibouti, Yemen, and Somalia. For starters, all doors were to remain locked at all times, with only one door to the exterior deck open during the day. Cardboard covered all of the portholes in the exterior doors and we were to draw our curtains tight at night so the ship could run dark. The crew had tied firehoses into position throughout the perimeter of the ship so, if under attack, the captain could engage the bilge and blast the would-be pirates with forceful jets of seawater as they tried to scale the massive hull. Two wooden “security guards” in bright orange vests were positioned at the rear of the ship, comical scarecrows that likely wouldn’t confuse anyone in my opinion.

The main defense for the ship was the ship itself. The ship’s hull stretches over 20 meters in height above the waterline, and climbs vertically. Even with a grappling hook or ladders, the pirates would have a hard time scaling it while stationary. We wouldn’t be stationary. Though we only run at 14 knots for fuel-saving concerns dictated by Evergreen, the captain would accelerate to 21 or even 25 knots in the event of a pirate attack. No smaller vessel could get close enough to our ship at that speed to hold ladders or ropes in position. “It would be impossible,” the Captain says.

Kristin in front of the 12-cylinder, 90,000 bhp, turbo diesel engine that powers the ship.

Kristin in front of the 12-cylinder, 90,000 bhp, turbo diesel engine that powers the ship.

Nevertheless, we were shown where to flee in event of the pirate alarm sounding. If that happens we were to hurry down to the Upper Deck (below A-deck) and follow a path through the Main Engine Room to an unmarked utility corridor that spans the width of the ship. The mustard-colored corridor was little more than a meter wide, but completely secure, provided someone barred the massive door behind us. The emergency exits at either end had a locking bolt on the inside. Inside the Citadel were several cases of water, but no food. Enough for everyone on board to survive for a day, we were told. We spent the six days in the High Risk Area with a bag in our room containing flashlights, a change of clothes, and one of our large bags of Gummi Bears. If the pirates were to get us, we wouldn’t go down starving.

Calm Seas, A Typhoon Gives Chase

The rain and wind came two days before we reached Sri Lanka, the night after the suspicious vessel showed up off our stern. The flat seas, humid air, and clear skies we experienced from the Mediterranean through the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden vanished and the sound of driving rain and wind woke us up at 3 in the morning. The next day was spent with the boat under a constant minor sway. Those who read One Lousy Pirate know Kristin doesn’t have the sturdiest pair of sea legs. Neither of us do, to be honest. But we were fine. The gentle sideways rocking was noticeable and sometimes enough to send the doors swinging on their hinges and our clothes on their closet hangers, but neither of us ever felt nauseas. It could have been much worse as we learned the next morning that the storm was the remnants of a typhoon that had formed near Somalia and was chasing us across the Indian Ocean. Had we have left three or four days later, we would have sailed right into 20-meter waves it while we were exiting the Gulf of Aden. Yikes!

An average day at sea, as viewed from outside the bridge, two decks above our cabin.

An average day at sea, as viewed from outside the bridge, two decks above our cabin.

We woke to sunshine the next day, the dwindling bands of wind and rain having finally split from our course. There was a brief rain shower the afternoon we left Sri Lanka, but that was it. It would seem to us that October is a fine time to be cruising the Indian Ocean from west to east.

Delays in Sri Lanka forced a faster cruising speed across the eastern half of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, en route to the Strait of Malaca. This stretch, which took the better part of four days to cross, was certainly rougher than going through the closed water of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, though not stormy. Though it rained and the wind was more intense, the sensation in our cabin was one of very minor airplane turbulence. In fact, sitting at my computer throughout the day, I often found myself wondering when the plane was going to land, that’s how similar the vibrations and the noise were. And the gentle rocking to and fro of the ship, felt just like a plane banking through a turn.

Port Calls

One of the main reasons we enjoyed the Trans-Atlantic cruise we took last summer was because there were no destinations to be herded through like cattle; no six-hour whirlwind tours of cheap amusements, souvenir shops and sanitized restaurants the cruise companies sell as add-ons. Instead, it was just transit. This is how you should view the cargo cruise.

Ferries crossing behind our ship in Suez.

Ferries crossing behind our ship in Suez.

Our fellow passengers boarded in Trieste, Italy and were able to spend the day in Athens when the ship made its 20-hour stop in Piraeus, Greece. That was nice for them, but shouldn’t be expected everywhere. Our stop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was only 14 hours or so and nobody, not crew or passenger, was allowed to leave the ship. We were excited about our stop in Sri Lanka and had been electronically approved for a visa over a month prior to our voyage. Unfortunately, a combination of Sri Lankan bureaucracy and tardiness mixed with the shipping company’s overprotective rules governing our coming and going from the ship combined to net us a fewer than four hours ashore in Sri Lanka, more than an hour of which was spent waiting for our drivers. We should have had more time ashore, a half-day’s more to be exact, but our minders were a total no-show the next morning. Tomorrow’s blog post will detail the 25 frustrating, wasted hours we spent in Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka Post here).

Had we have booked this cruise for its port calls, we would have been very disappointed. Fortunately, our focus was transit, pure and simple. And downtime. Yours should be too, if considering this method of travel.

Booking a Cargo Cruise

Freighter-travel isn’t a particularly new method of travel, but you’re unlikely to encounter many people who have done it, given the long days at sea, the limited number of passengers per ship (less than a half dozen), and the relative cost. Expect to pay, on average, 100 Euros per person, per day for room, board, and transit. The Captain recommends each passenger tip the crew a case of beer (an additional 15 Euros). We also gave the Steward and Chef an additional tip of 70 Euros to share. We spent an additional 46 Euros over the course of 19 days on beer, wine, and candy. Provisions from the slopchest were essentially at wholesale prices.

Sunrise in the Strait of Malaca, off the northern tip of Sumatra.

Sunrise in the Strait of Malaca, off the northern tip of Sumatra.

Cargo cruising is harder to be approved for if you’re over a certain age, as there are no doctors on board. Kristin and I had to have our doctor back home in the Seattle area complete a health questionnaire for us; the Swiss passenger on board said, because of her age, she had to get multiple forms and doctor’s permission slips in order for the shipping company to approve her. If something were to happen at sea, the ship’s crew could do little more than try to keep you comfortable until they get to the next scheduled port. Don’t expect a diversion or a helicopter; it’s not happening.

Maris operates a freighter-cruising club you can join for a fee here. Another option, the one we chose thanks to a recommendation from Travelling Two, was to get in touch with Hamish and let him set it all up. He’s a fast respondent and was easy to work with. Just be sure to send your initial inquiry at least three to four months in advance of your planned departure. There are numerous websites (Maris’s is a good one) that will help you get an understanding of the available routes. Note that some ports are not available for arrival/departures. Also, some routes are round-trip only. We were originally investigating a cargo-cruise from Singapore to Auckland with numerous stops in a myriad of exotic locales, but that route was round-trip only.

Special Thanks: We’d like to thank Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc. for their continuing support of our journey as well as Sharon Woodward, our wonderful travel clinic pharmacist, for her generous donation. And, of course, to everyone else who continues to follow along on this journey of ours. Thank you so much!

18 June, 2015

Top 10 Questions We Get Asked

We’re oh-so-close to getting back on our bikes after six months away from our beloved Salsa Fargos and we can’t wait. We spent the last two weeks in Florida at Kristin’s mom’s beach house, joining family in spreading her father’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico, and are headed back to New Jersey to collect our Ortlieb duffel bags, deposit some of the gear we took to Japan and Indonesia, and bid farewell to family one more time. We’ll be back in Italy, unboxing our stowed bikes in less than a week!

While we were making our 31-hour journey from Singapore to Florida earlier this month we thought it would be fun to assemble a “top 10” post from our first 15 months of being on the road. Rather than answer the most rudimentary questions (What’s your favorite meal?, What’s your favorite country?, How did you get across the Atlantic?, etc.,) we tried to remember the questions that scratched a little deeper. And in doing so, we were forced to remember — and acknowledge — that this has been one absolutely amazing trip so far.

We hope you enjoy this post and, if we failed to answer any questions your inquiring mind wants to know, go ahead and ask it in the comments section and we’ll be sure to reply as soon as possible!

1: What was your favorite day on the bike?

Doug: For me, it had to be our second big mountain day in Spain. I was really hesitant to leave Pamplona and my 8-year old GPS gave up the ghost the morning we were leaving so I had to wing it with just a compass and small-scale map. The next day, after camping in Logrono, we headed deep into the Sierra de la Demanda for some tremendous alpine scenery. We struggled to find a place to wild camp as we kept getting higher and higher into the mountains. The scenery was tremendous, the road very narrow and windy, sheep and cattle wore eerily clanging bells, and it was getting dark. And we just kept climbing and climbing along this narrow mountain creek until, finally, we found a wonderful primitive campground near a trailhead on the side of the road.  It was one of the darkest nights I had ever experienced and it got cold. But it was the perfect end to a tremendous day of early autumn cycling in the Pyrenees and capped our third consecutive day of 4,000 feet of climbing.

Kristin: For me, it was the day we finally reached the familiar scent of the Atlantic Ocean. We rolled out of Brooks, Maine that morning headed for Acadia National Park. We always knew we would eventually reach the Atlantic Ocean, but after enjoying the routine of biking, eating, and sleeping day after day, we were shocked when we realized that we actually did it. We bicycled across the USA at its widest point. It was as we crossed the beautiful bridge that connected the small island of Verona with mainland Maine that I smelled that salty, sea air. I stared at the back of Doug’s head, willing him to turn around. I didn’t want to ruin the moment by calling to him. Within a few minutes, he turned his head and through my tears, I saw his eyes glistening too. We stopped on the bridge, wrapped our arms around each other’s sweaty bodies and just paused to think about what we had just accomplished.

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass.

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass in the Sierra de la Demanda.

2: What was your favorite day off the bike?

Kristin: I will never forget my 39th birthday in Naples, Italy! Doug plans most days, but today was going to be special. The celebration started with dinner the night before at a small restaurant with live music. It started to lightly snow in Naples and the waiters all ran outside to see the flakes — it never snows in Naples! The next morning, we hopped a train to Pompeii where a dusting of snow made this wonder even greater. It was much larger and better preserved than I imagined. There were still tile mosaics in the bathhouses and terra cotta warming pots in the restaurants. After returning to Naples and a few hours of rest, we ventured out to the town square for a Time Square-like celebration to ring in the New Year. Yes, my birthday falls on December 31st! At midnight, after the countdown, many people in the crowd began lighting fireworks (most would have been illegal in the USA) and sparklers as long as my arm and the diameter of my index finger. It sounded like what I imagine a war zone to sound like. Later we returned to our room, walking down the middle of the street so as to avoid items being thrown out the windows. In Naples, people take “out with the old and in with the new,” quite literally as champagne bottles, small appliances, and even some furniture were thrown out in favor of a new start. This was a celebration unlike anything I’d experienced before and it went from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning. People in Naples know how to ring in the New Year.

Doug: Kristin planned a tremendous day for my 39th birthday in Paris. We walked up to Sacre Couer first thing in the morning and then split up for a few hours. I had to get some new bike chains and a new tire and went and walked through Paris by myself on a bit of a cafe/pub-crawl. That night, Kristin took me to the incredibly beautiful Sainte-Chapelle to see a string ensemble perform Pachelbel’s Canon, Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, and Vivaldi’s entire Four Seasons led by one of the France’s top violinists. It was absolutely amazing. We then had a fantastic dinner at an upscale cafe while watching some guys play a fun yard game out in the square. After dinner these two younger Parisians, Cedric and Jeffrey, taught us how to play the Swedish game Molkke. I took to it right away and won my share of games. We played until nearly midnight when one of the wealthy neighbors came out to complain about our noise.

Pompeii and the volcano that put it in the history books.

Pompeii and the volcano that put it in the history books.

3: What was the biggest dose of culture shock?

Doug: We spent a month in Morocco, our first Muslim country, and then, on December 9th, boarded a ferry bound for Livorno, Italy. We were tired, emotionally spent, and not really thinking too clearly about the seasons. When we finally arrived in Italy, very late on December 11th, we pedaled four miles through darkened streets to our hotel. The next morning, we awoke to realize our hotel was right in the middle of a bustling Christmas market. We had completely forgotten about Christmas. The transition from southern Spain to Morocco was so gentle thanks to the long-forgotten Moors (“Moops” for our fellow Seinfeld fans) but going straight from a month in Morocco, capped with ten days in the Sahara, to a Christmas market in Italy… it was almost too much to comprehend.

Kristin: On April 27th, after six weeks in Japan, we boarded a plane to leave the polite, modern world of Tokyo. We loved the city. There are so many people in one place and yet it never felt crowded or claustrophobic. Everyone was courteous and respectful of everyone else’s space. But we were excited to be finally headed to Bali and after ten hours, we were thrust into another world. The streets of Kuta, our first stop, were crowded with honking cars and motorbikes and the sidewalks were filled with people bumping past each other. Most every store front was a cheap souvenir store, tour or taxi service, or massage parlor with workers outside constantly calling to us. It was also very dirty in spots. It was too much in-your-face chaos too soon. After a good night sleep, we accepted Kuta for what it was and enjoyed the party, but the initial shock nearly had us back on the plane for Tokyo.

4: List your Top 3 favorite food memories!

Kristin: Anyone who knows me knows that every tooth in my mouth is a sweet tooth and I never met anything sugary that I didn’t like. So, when we arrived in Morocco and I had my first sip of the sugary sweet mint tea, I was in love. It tasted like mint flavored sweet tea from the southern United States, but served hot. Next on my list are the baguettes in France, which seems obvious, but when I imagined a French woman walking elegantly down the street, I never pictured her gnawing on a baguette for lunch and yet that was what I saw. Naturally, I paid my euro for a whole baguette and joined in. And last but not least, I loved the plethora of fresh fruit (papaya, passion fruit, dragon fruit, guava, mangosteen, to name a few) in Bali. Much of it I had never seen nor was really sure how to eat, but the locals were always willing to help us out or sometimes we just figured it out. Eating is a huge part of the joy of this trip.

Doug: Forgive me for speaking in general terms, but after so many great snacks and tremendous meals, I struggle to be very specific. For me, when I think about food, the first thing that comes to mind is the unbelievable French bakeries (boulangeries/patisseries). The baguettes and pastries being produced in France are, for my money, the highest quality, most affordable food on the planet. Next up, I’d have to say our first kaiseki meal in a Japanese ryokan. We stayed in a few ryokans while in Japan, but nothing compared to that first 11-course meal at Aura Tachibana. And, lastly, for my third pick, I’ll just say Tuscany. All the food in Tuscany. All of it. Especially the meal we ate on a rainy, frigid, day in the mountains served up by a former Miss Italia.

Our appetizer contained shrimp pudding, butterfish, green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a turkey pastrami.

The appetizer course of a meal at Aura Tachibana in Hakone, Japan.

5: What cultural observation surprised you the most?

Doug: After spending a month in France, a month in Spain, and a month in Morocco, three countries with very established “cafe cultures” for lack of a better word (Spain less so than France and Morocco), I have to say I was quite surprised by the lack of a cafe culture in Italy. Italians belly up to the espresso bar, order, throw back their shot in one gulp, and are out the door as fast as can be. I noticed very little loitering in Italian cafes, very few people reading the paper or watching the day unfold. Which shocked me given how unhurried most Italians seemed to be. That said, the cafes in Italy stock an impressive array of alcohol and appear to do most of their business in the evenings when people stop for a drink or three after work. Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many chairs and tables in Italian cafes.

Kristin: Japan is small and space is limited, so I was shocked to see the size of the stores and number of choices in every category. Just one store, Yodobashi Camera in Osaka, had eight massive floors of electronics. I couldn’t believe how many high quality choices there were for every category of electronics from refrigerators, to vacuums, washers and dryers, to printer paper, to speaker wire, everything electronic. Just as an example, there were over one hundred different vacuums to choose from and the printer paper section spanned about 2000 square feet. Every item had a variety like this. If you wanted a rice cooker, you had dozens of models to choose from. The section devoted to camera tripods was larger than most camera stores we have in the USA. I’ll be very jealous when I start looking to furnish a home and faced with America’s limited choices.

6: What was your favorite region/country to travel by bicycle?

Kristin: Even though the New England region of the USA provided some of the hilliest and longest days, the friendliness of the people more than made up for it. We cycled up Terrible Pass in Vermont with a pair of roadies who chatted with us until our paths diverged and nearly six months later invited us to see them when they heard that we were back in New Jersey for a few weeks. Also in Vermont, we had a motel owner toss the keys to his new car to Doug to drive the two of them to pick up our pizza and beer. The pizza place didn’t deliver, nor did any other restaurant in town, and the motel owner had had two beers, but didn’t want us to go hungry. In Maine, we were adopted for the night by a dozen senior citizen hot rod owners staying at the Fryberg Fairground. We cycled up to ask them if they knew where we might camp for the night and before we knew it they insisted that we join them for dinner, let us put up our tent behind their RVs, and fed us until we cried mercy. The following morning, several of them brought us baggies of brownies, muffins, and bread to have for breakfast and take with us for snacks during the day. We have met friendly people everywhere, but these were just a few standout memories that we wouldn’t have had if we were driving.

Doug: I want to say Spain, but I can’t. I have to go with my backyard and say the northwestern United States. Particularly, that stretch between Puget Sound and Glacier National Park. The scenery is phenomenal, the environments varied, and there are so many affordable camping options that bike touring is just easier there. We camped in State Parks, County Parks, National Parks, and plenty of National Forests, the latter of which has a tremendous system of primitive campgrounds. Also, food is abundant and inexpensive (gas station Teriyaki for the win!), there are a number of friendly WarmShowers hosts. Also, the roads aren’t bad at all and there are plenty of rail-trails to be ridden. If you’re looking for good roads, abundant non-commercial camping, and great scenery, the Pacific Northwest is tough to beat!

Moonpies and a campfire on the shores of Lake Chelan in central Washington state.

Moonpies and a campfire on the shores of Lake Chelan in central Washington state, our fourth night out.

7: What place are you most looking forward to returning to?

We’ll tag team this answer since we have the same top two responses and they’re essentially 1a and 1b. First, we have to say Bali. Not for bicycle touring, but for living. And we’re actually going to be doing just that next year, as we already made arrangements to rent a great little house outside of Ubud for four months in 2016, just a short walk through the rice fields to our favorite haunts from last month. So that, by default, has to be mentioned first. The other place that we really hope to return to is Pamplona, Spain. Pamplona had a tremendous blend of parks, public squares, cafes and restaurants, and nearby recreation that it really suited us. It’s also a very clean, well-organized city, with a lot of culture and history. And the best part, in our opinion, is that it’s relatively free of tourists outside those two weeks in the summer when the world comes to run with the bulls. Kristin has been working on improving her Spanish language skills with Duolingo and looks forward to putting it to use in the future.

I can get used to this.

Nightlife in Pamplona.

8: What place do you hope to never return to again?

Kristin: North Dakota. Whether riding or camping, the wind is more than I could handle at times. Some days we had a tailwind and it was wonderful, but most days it was either a strong crosswind or strong headwind. We had two days that we had to cut short after a few hours of cycling averaging only 5 to 7 miles per hour and realizing we wouldn’t make it to our planned destination. In camp, the wind continued to annoy by whisking away our plates, napkins, plastic garbage bags, and anything else that wasn’t weighted down. There were plenty of nice views and scenery, and we met some friendly, generous people too, but the incessant wind was miserable. If I ever return, it won’t be on a bicycle!

Doug: I’ve complained about Morocco enough over the past six months, that it’s starting to feel like I’m piling on, but I have to say the city of Fes. It’s just not for me. There are a lot of neat things about Fes, but for every wonderful moment we had, we had two or three blood-boiling moments of frustration. I don’t care for places where the only way to survive is to assume most people are scam-artists. It’s particularly disappointing as I always counted Morocco as one of the three countries I was most excited to visit. It’s been funny to talk to other long-term travelers these past few months about Morocco. As soon as the topic comes up, everybody we meet who has been there just puts their hands up to stop me right there. “Don’t get us started about Morocco. Let’s talk about something else,” they say. I’m happy to know it’s not me (though, of course, those who experience Morocco on package tours often regale us with a very different opinion).

The hills of the plains aren't big, but they're never-ending. As are the headwinds.

The hills of North Dakota’s central plains aren’t big, but they’re never-ending. As are the headwinds.

9: What were your favorite obvious tourist attractions?

There are plenty of so-called must-see attractions that we rolled right on past, but we did stop for some of them. We even went way, way out of our way for a couple too. A brief list of our favorites in no particular order: Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Michelangelo’s David, Bodleian Library at Oxford, Pompeii in the snow, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, live Flamenco performance in Seville, the Eiffel Tower, Mont Saint-Michel, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

So much energy in flamenco, especially from such a close distance.

So much energy in flamenco, especially from such a close distance.

10: What was your most embarrassing moment?

This was a joint-humiliation affair so this will have to cover both of us. We were still in Washington state, staying with a WarmShowers host in eastern WA and he so graciously emailed to say that he would be home after we arrived and we should just let ourselves in. We were really shy about doing this so we instead went to a bar for an hour and then came back. He still wasn’t home so we finally got up the courage to let ourselves in. He had cats. Two of them, one orange and one black. We did our best to keep them away from the door, but we had a lot of panniers to bring in and, well, in the chaos of us going back and forth from the basement guestroom to our bikes outside, the cats disappeared.

Panic immediately set in. We started running throughout the house calling out for “black cat” and “orange cat” hoping that they would respond to these ridiculous calls. The cats were nowhere. And then we noticed the door was ajar. Oh no. We ran to the door and looked out the window and didn’t see them. Another hurried search of the house turned up nothing. What are we going to do? “We need to just go,” I said to Kristin. “We need to just pretend we were never here and hope someone returns the cats. Lets get back on our bikes and find a motel before he comes home.” She didn’t like this idea. I didn’t like it either, but what choice did we have? I was already envisioning these poor cats getting eaten by a coyote or run over by a car.

We stood in shock in the kitchen, feeling absolutely awful. And then we heard the dog barking outside. He was in a fenced-in kennel and barking like crazy. We went outside to see what the problem was and that’s when we saw the cats. They were sitting on their hind legs right outside the door. Miracles exist! We each grabbed a cat and quickly carried them inside, tremendously relieved that they actually allowed us to pick them up.

Two hours later, showered, beer in hand, and talking with our host, the cats wandered into the kitchen. Our host bent down to pet them, then stood, and opened the door to let them go outside. “I should have asked you to let them out when you got here since I had to work late,” he said.

Yes, the cats we were so panicked over; the cats we imagined being killed by our negligence, turned out to be outdoor cats. Outdoor cats we should have just let out.

9 May, 2015

Japan by Train: Skip the JR Pass!

Spend any amount of time researching a trip to Japan and you’re bound to encounter all manner of helpful articles extolling the benefits of the Japan Rail Pass. This pass, a money-saving transit pass available only to foreigners and sold in 7-, 14-, and 21-day durations, allows unlimited travel on the bulk of the Japan Rail Group’s nationwide network of trains (including most shinkansen “bullet trains”) and some buses and ferries.

At first glance, the JR Pass seemed like a no-brainer of a purchase, especially since we’d be visiting without our bicycles and relying heavily on the country’s outstanding railway system to get around. But, the more I looked at it (and the more time I allowed my natural aversion to pre-purchasing to settle in… I blame the videogame industry for this reluctance) the less the JR Pass seemed to make sense for us.

Shinkansen N700 Series by Sui-setz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shinkansen N700 Series by Sui-setz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For starters, it seems like a hassle. You have to purchase the pass from a licensed sales agent outside of Japan then turn in the voucher at a major JR Station office once inside the country. Okay, that’s relatively pain-free, but back in the USA, before we left, I didn’t know whether or not each of the legs of our journey would be possible using JR lines. In fact, I was pretty sure we’d be taking a lot of local trains, which the pass wouldn’t always cover. I spot-checked the cost of our longest leg — Osaka to Hiroshima — on the invaluable Hyperdia website/app and decided that we’d probably need to do a lot of long-haul trips to make the JR Pass worthwhile. Lastly, the biggest pass was for 21 days and we were going to be there for 6 weeks. Do we buy two passes each? Do we buy one and activate it in the middle of our trip? Ugh. Too many questions. When in doubt, I always take the path of least headache, least restrictions. My recommendation to Kristin: “Let’s skip the passes. Worst comes to worst, we end up spending an extra hundred dollars or so over the course of six weeks. It’ll be worth it to have the extra flexibility.” She agreed.

That was then, back in February. Now it’s May and it’s time to tally up our transit costs and see whether not buying the JR Passes for a longer trip was a smart decision.

Prices for the JR Pass, as of February, 2015.

Prices for the JR Pass as of February, 2015. From www.japanrailpass.net

For comparison’s sake, we were considering buying two 21-day “Ordinary” adult passes per person (all figures from this point on are for two people). This would have been a total of 237,400¥ or, $1,995 USD, based on the average exchange rate we encountered during our stay (119:1). Yes, we can probably put “sticker shock” down as another reason why I decided against the passes. These things aren’t cheap!

I’ve been tracking our expenses, by category, for every day of the trip. This was a little easier when we were bicycling everywhere and we didn’t have large transit costs (aside from a Trans-Atlantic Crossing). To not over-inflate our daily expenses, I broke out our point-to-point transportation costs for Japan into the separate “major expenses” page of our tracking sheets.

We had a total of 14 point-to-point travel days in Japan that ended up costing a total of $1254 USD for the two of us, a very big savings. That included two rides on super express “Nozomi” shinkansen trains that weren’t covered by the JR Pass, so in addition to the monetary savings we also saved some time. We also had a lengthy ride on a highway bus not covered by JR Pass.

The route we took through Japan, in pursuit of the blooming cherry blossoms.

The route we took through Japan, in pursuit of the blooming cherry blossoms.

But, wait, is that all the transit you took? I’m glad you asked! No, it wasn’t. If you add up all of the subways, taxis, ferries, cable-cars and shuttles that we took (almost none of which are covered by the JR Pass), that adds an additional $602 USD to our total transit expenditures.

So, in essence, not only was our total transportation expense of $1856 USD more than a hundred dollars less than the cost of the JR Passes for that 6-week duration, but more than 33% of those costs wouldn’t have been covered by the JR Pass anyway (several of our train tickets were on local lines not covered by JR trains).

What if you only bought a single 21-day pass and optimized it for the most expensive part of your trip? Another great question, thank you for asking!

The most costly 3-week period for our point-to-point travel totaled $825 USD, while two 21-day JR Passes to cover that same duration (one each), expertly timed with prior knowledge we didn’t actually have, would have cost $997 USD. Another example of not getting the JR Pass being the smart decision. And, again, that $825 includes several local trains and shinkansen rides that were not covered by the JR Pass.

I’m not suggesting that buying a JR Pass is always going to be a losing proposition, but it’s certainly not the money-saving silver bullet(train) it’s made out to be in the travel guides. In our experience, and as I think these numbers bear, the JR Pass is going to only make sense if you’re doing a shorter trip that involves more frequent travel days. We tended to stay at least 3 nights in each of our destinations, cutting back on the amount of time spent on transiting from destination to destination.

Final Verdict: The JR Pass should only be considered for whirlwind tours of Japan’s major cities and transit hubs. Those planning on visiting smaller, more remote towns or spending three or more nights in each location will save money by not buying the JR Pass. Happy travels!

20 April, 2015

April in Kyoto: You Might Want to Skip It

The idea of chasing the blooming cherry blossom trees, sakura, across Japan is not new, nor original. Numerous websites are devoted to predicting the ideal time and place to catch the peak of Japan’s national tree as the light-pink flowers spread across the mountainous island nation. It is a thing entirely worth doing. And it was this idea, wrapped in the romantic notion of lively picnics beneath an impentrable floral canopy as blossoms fluttered down all around us, Kristin tossing her unflippable hair and laughing as a petal improbably landed in my sake cup, that led to our deciding to spend six weeks in Japan this spring. And it is the beauty of this brief phenomena mixed with Japan’s rich cultural heritage that leads all sakura-seekers, eventually, to Kyoto… and therein lies the problem.

The rain wasn't going to dampen this picnic in Himeji, hanami as we imagined it.

The rain wasn’t going to dampen this picnic in Himeji, hanami as we imagined it.

I received — and ignored — the first clue that Kyoto in April was not a good idea when, back in late January, my attempt at finding a room in Kyoto for the first week of April proved impossible. Every one of my go-to websites turned up a complete and utter absence of vacancies: Hotels, Orbitz, Hostels, Booking, etc., not a single room to be found for the first week of April. I knew Kyoto was a popular spot for hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties, but to flip through dozens of pages of hotel listings and come up empty — at any price range — left me feeling like the only kid who forgot to study for the big exam. I restructured our itinerary to head to Koyasan and Kobe for a few days, pushing back our arrival in Kyoto to later in the week, at the risk of missing peak bloom (an excellent decision, as you will see). Shuffling the dates landed us a private room at a very cheap, very old, and very tiny guesthouse on the north end of Kyoto, appropriately named Small World. It was perfect, albeit rather cold and drafty.

We alighted from the train in beautiful, majestic Kyoto Station on April 6th and promptly took a place in line at the nearby Tourist Information office to try and snag last-second tickets to Miyako-Odori, the annual spring Geisha dance festival. Thirty minutes of waiting in a snaking line of backpack-laden travelers, most of whom were asking for tourist maps and bus schedules (available along the wall) or pleading for a hotel room in this completely sold-out city (ignoring the large sign on the door stating there were none available), eventually got us our tickets. I couldn’t believe it! Already sensing that April in Kyoto was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for not all the right reasons, we splurged and got the premium tickets to attend the tea ceremony as well — absolutely worth it!

Simply stunning display of makeup, dress, and quiet subtlety in everything these women do. The tea ceremony at Miyako-Odori was certainly worth seeing.

Simply stunning display of makeup, dress, and quiet subtlety in everything these women do. The tea ceremony at Miyako-Odori was certainly worth seeing, as it’s the closest a Westerner is likely going to get to an actual Geisha.

After dropping our bags, we set off on foot to Kinkakuji, the famed Golden Pavillion. I was fortunate to have visited Kinkakuji on a trip to Japan in 2009 and consider it to be one of those rare, obvious, over-hyped tourist-traps that actually still merits a visit. At least once. So, since it was within walking distance and Kristin hadn’t seen it, we went. The peaceful garden surrounding this shimmering gold-leafed six-centuries-old Zen Buddhist temple that I had visited on a cold winter’s day six year’s prior was now lined wall-to-wall with umbrella-wielding tour groups, with more pouring out of a convoy of tour buses every minute. Hundreds of people, predominantly Chinese, jockeyed for a position near the bamboo barrier lining the pond in hopes of getting a clear photo of the gorgeous temple that deserved so much better than this. Nobody stopped to just take it in. Nobody stood in reverence or in contemplation. Selfies, group poses, peace-signs for the camera. Snap, snap, snap, move along. Been there, done that, bought the postcard. The fact that it was a historical religious temple of architectural magnificence mattered not.

Obligatory photo of Kinkakuji. Being tall and able to withstand repeated blows to the head with selfie-sticks   will prove useful if hoping to snag this photo.

Obligatory photo of Kinkakuji. Being tall and able to withstand repeated blows to the head with selfie-sticks proved useful in taking this photo.  But, honestly, if you want to see Kinkakuji, come outside of April. There aren’t any sakura there anyway.

We walked over fifteen miles through the streets of Kyoto the next day, from our guest house to the Imperial Palace to Nishiki Market to Gion, and over to the Path of the Philosopher in the city’s eastern edge. We hit the ground early in effort to visit the Imperial Housing Office with our fingers crossed that we’d be able to get tickets for Katsura Rikyu, the Imperial Villa on the southwest corner of town. A friend back home, originally from Japan, recommended it as the absolute best thing to see in Kyoto. We got the tickets — they’re free, but limited, and only available with passport in person at the IHO — thanks Mire! We then got on line to enter the Imperial Palace Grounds. It was the last day the grounds were open for un-guided viewing. Though we were on line before the gates opened at 9am (the IHO office conveniently opens at 8:45) we were already stuck behind two hundred raised umbrellas as another convoy of Chinese tour buses idled patiently in the lot nearby.

Gotakien Garden at Kyoto's Imperial Palace and cherry blossoms along the Path of the Philosopher.

Gonaitei Garden at Kyoto’s Imperial Palace and cherry blossoms, post-peak, along the Path of the Philosopher.

Perhaps everyone (except us) already knows the Imperial Palace in Tokyo is a more worthwhile destination, but the only truly noteworthy element of the Kyoto palace grounds is the Gonaitei Garden. But, beautiful as it was, we could have skipped it considering we were already in possession of tickets to Katsura Rikyu. In dire need of some coffee and a little peace-and-quiet, we soon left the palace grounds and headed straight to the nearby McDonald’s. Yes, there is better coffee in Japan — by a mile — but where else can you get 120¥ coffee and sit and read while being serenaded by a live pianist? Yes, I digress, but it must be noted that several of the McDonalds we’ve been to in Japan have baby grand pianos on their second floor with daily performances. It is not uncommon to find Japanese people working, conducting meetings, napping, and reading or playing portable games in a McDonalds. For a Westerner looking for a cheap respite, they’re invaluable. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, Sausage Egg McMuffins are my drug of choice.

Caffeinated but hungry, we delved deep into the the slowly progressing crowd of foragers inching their way through Nishiki Market, Kyoto’s epicenter of fresh food, free samples, and all manner of unrecognizable goodies. Duck on a stick? Yes, please. A handful of miniature, translucent salted sardines? Sure, why not. A baby octopus with a boiled quail egg stuffed inside its head? Umm… sorry, but we’ve had our fill of octopus this week. Honestly. I returned to the knife shop upon whose floor I had left a small puddle of drool in 2009 and was able to smile confident in the deal we got on four Sakai Takayuki knives at a restaurant supplier in Osaka. We also returned to the print shop where, last trip, I bought a yellowed old print of Hokusai’s famed “Great Wave off Kanagawa” printed by an apprentice shortly after his death. This time, unemployed, we were just browsing.

Typical food stal in Nishiki Market, many of which had free samples or inexpensive offerings of skewered meat and fish.

Typical food stall in Nishiki Market, many of which had free samples or inexpensive offerings of skewered meat and fish. There’s so many tasty things to eat here, come hungry!

As we walked on, towards Gion, the crowds only intensified. I don’t like large crowds of people. Sporting events aside, I tend to avoid festivals, concerts, and other events that attract large quantities of people. I’m a shoulder-season kind of guy who always preferred the lonely beach of September to the bikini-clad one in July, the wilderness campground to the hot spring resort, and the quiet gathering of friends to a raucous party. The rain had stopped, we were fed, and the cherry blossoms were past their prime. This didn’t matter; Gion in April is a nightmare. It is a commercialized, hanami-profiteering orgy of food stalls, pop-up tents, and tacky souvenirs stands. We wended our way through Maruyama Park, uphill away from the throngs of kimono-clad twenty-somethings on dates, the masses of tour groups, and out of sight of the gawdy blue, red, and yellow tents and canopies. I couldn’t imagine it on a sunny day at peak bloom.

Stands like this lined every path in Maruyama Park, offering little chance to even see the cherry blossoms unless you were right under them.

Stands like this lined every path in Maruyama Park, creating a carnival atmosphere. There was even a haunted house. Neither of these were things we were hoping to find amongst the cherry blossoms in Japan’s cultural center.

We traversed a hill with a trail of temples — some counts put Kyoto’s number of temples and shrines over 1600 — and soon found ourselves along Tetsugaku-no-michi, the Path of the Philosopher. With hundreds of cherry blossom trees lining a narrow canal, the Path of the Philosopher offers a quiet, beautiful walk for you and everyone else visiting Kyoto. Or so I feared. Actually, at nearly two miles in length, the crowd got pretty spread out, especially late in the afternoon when we were there. This was a highlight of our grand walking tour of Kyoto, as it allowed for plenty of photo-ops without dealing with tour groups. The people walking the canal trail were just local families, couples on dates (in beautiful traditional dress), and pairs of tourists like us. One thing we learned, and saw repeated again the next day at Fushimi-Inari (the other must-see, obvious tourist trap in Kyoto but with free admission), is that tour groups don’t stray far from the bus. A two mile walk? You’ll leave the masses behind in under a quarter of a mile.

If Not Kyoto, Where?

Our six weeks of chasing the cherry blossoms are coming to an end (though, as I write this, they are in full glory here in Nagano Prefecture). We’ll be headed to Bali next week. And, looking back, missing the peak bloom in Kyoto was a blessing in disguise. Skipping Kyoto altogether — this trip — was an opportunity missed.

Kyoto is a magificent city, not exactly easy on the eyes, but it’s got more than its fair share of history, culture, arts, dining, and everything else a traveler can ask for. It is, make no mistake, one of my favorite cities. But the things I love about it, the things most people come to see, are always there. While certain festivals such as Miyako-Odori only take place in April, there are plenty of fantastic places to view cherry blosoms elsewhere in the country, with far fewer people, and with virtually no commercialization polluting the experience.

Kristin and I taking in peak-bloom at Mount Egeyama in Kobe.

Kristin and I taking in peak-bloom at Mount Egeyama in Kobe.

One of those places, our favorite, was Mount Egeyama Park in Kobe. This small park with its spiraling hillside walking path has over 1400 cherry blossom trees of multiple varieties. We spent a few hours in this park on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon. There were women walking their dogs, dads and their sons throwing baseballs around, a small group of young boys with a net and bug jar collecting insects, and even a toddler taking her first steps as her mom blew soap bubbles. It was a park the way a park exists in our rose-colored, Norman Rockwell memory banks. We walked every inch of the park’s trails then sat on a bench and read under the shade of towering cherry blossom trees.

An occasional petal fell onto the screen of my Kindle. It wasn’t the sake cup I envisioned, but it still made us laugh with joy.

On Tap: For those considering a trip to Japan in the not-so-distant future, the next posting is going to cover our decision to not purchase a Japan Rail pass for our time here… and whether or not that was a wise decision. I’m going to itemize our travel costs and compare them to the price of the 1, 2, and 3 week JR passes that are available for foreigners. I’m not sure whether or not we saved money by not buying the passes, but I think we just might have. Stay tuned to find out!

Postcard Winner! Congratulations to Justin Vander Pol! Not only is Justin the kick-ass realtor who got our house sold in just 8 days, but he’s also a longtime Board Member (and former Executive Director) of Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, and most importantly (not really) the winner of this month’s postcard-and-more drawing!

12 January, 2015

Detours Ahead

“And then, after Italy, we’ll continue east through Greece and Turkey before heading up into Georgia and making our way across Central Asia to China.” I could see the hotel manager’s imagination was running wild, his eyes widened as they panned across the map of our proposed route. He asked how long it would take to reach Vietnam. I told him about a year, Insha‘Allah. “Unless we get bored and sell the bikes halfway across Uzbekistan,” I thought, updating my oft-used, pre-trip disclaimer about North Dakota. I always completed that attempt at downplaying our plans by adding: “And buy a one-way ticket to Tahiti.”

I wasn’t thinking about Tahiti at the moment, but neither Kristin nor I shared the manager’s excitement. We were spent. And it wasn’t all the time spent on the bike either, but just being on the move. No, the number that wore us down wasn’t the 9,000 miles we had pedaled to reach the Sahara, but the 170 different places we had slept in within a span of 8 months. The topic of taking some time off – measured in weeks or months and not days – became part of our nightly dinner conversation.

The conversations continued, even several days later after returning from an overnight camel trek in the Sahara, only then they were peppered with phrases like “bucket list” and “once-in-a-lifetime.” And it got us thinking about our lifelong travel wish-lists: African safaris, cruising to Antarctica, trekking in the Himalaya, and visiting Easter Island were just a few of the dream excursions that were mentioned.

And few of them fell along that line we drew across the map several years ago.

I forget who first mentioned it, but we were soon agreeing that we had lost track of what made us take this trip. Our goal was never to bicycle around the world, our wish was to take a mid-life timeout and travel, uninhibited, for as long as we had the money to do so. The bikes were merely a means of conveyance; the trip around the world, simply a compass bearing. And, frankly, the bikes were starting to get in the way of that. We developed stock, disarming, answers to all of the myriad questions posed to us over the past few years. From the one about North Dakota and Tahiti to our canned response of “when our money or desire runs out” when asked how long the trip would take. It would seem, with 65% of our budget then still intact, that desire was the first to show fatigue.

We spent the day after Christmas boxing up our gear and bicycles.

Giving new meaning to “Boxing Day”, we spent the day after Christmas boxing up our gear and bicycles.

Before we share our plans for the immediate future, we must first address the elephant in the tent: Kristin’s father has an advanced, rare cancer that’s terminal. He was diagnosed two years ago and was able to curtail its spread until this past autumn when the effectiveness of his treatment options met their end; the cancer has begun growing again, albeit slowly. Whereas I have used campground and hotel Wi-Fi to work on the website, upload photos, and play PC games, Kristin has often used it to put her biotech experience and industry contacts to work in researching clinical trials options for her father. Her father’s condition was always in our minds, leading Kristin to bury her tear-streaked face in my shoulder on the side of the road on more than one occasion. As you can imagine, it was a difficult decision to even start this trip. But, as long as he was feeling well – which he fortunately still is, even now – and we were within a flight’s reach of family, we felt that it didn’t matter if we were back home in Snoqualmie or somewhere abroad. Her family kept their protests to a minimum and respected our ability to do the right thing. The only request came from her father: “Just promise me you won’t be halfway around the world when I’m dying,” he asked. We promised.

We spent the night camped out in a cafe at the Dusseldorf airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Miami.

We spent the night camped out in a cafe at the Dusseldorf airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Miami.

One of the things that helped us get through the occasional bouts of homesickness this past year was remembering that everything would still be there when we returned. If we’re lucky.

It’s time to cut to the chase: our bikes, panniers, and camping gear are currently in storage in Rome. We plan to return in early September, after the crowds disperse, and continue our tour through Italy, Greece and Turkey at that time. And after that? Central Asia. The original plan, continued. Or not. Money and desire…

So where are we?

We are here!

There we are!

By the time you read this, we’ll have surprised Kristin’s parents at their beach house in Florida (after a brief trip to Everglades National Park). We were going to spend a month or two in Florence, Italy, but decided that it made more sense for Kristin to spend that time with her father than it did sitting idle in an Italian apartment. This is also a chance to take advantage of a very unique opportunity we have. So often, as we age, and family turns ill, we become so busy with our own responsibilities and obligations that we can’t just drop everything and spend as much time with our loved ones as we might in a perfect world. Kristin and I are in a unique position right now: willingly unemployed, homeless, and without a schedule. All of the same reasons we used to convince ourselves to undertake this journey, we now use to convince ourselves that this temporary pause is the right thing to do. And the thoughts we used to ward off homesickness now remind us that we’re not going to miss anything. Athens and Istanbul will still be there later this year.

Watching the gator swim under our boardwalk.

Watching the gator swim under our boardwalk at Everglades National Park.

Taking some time off the bikes was something we had discussed several times over the last month, but our discussion of “bucket list” items reminded me of two things that I’ve longed to do for many, many years. I got so used to these ideas being out-of-reach that I completely forgot about them. Back when I was a broke graduate student and Kristin and I were routinely juggling our bills to keep the lights on (not always successfully), I used to sit and page through the Mountain Travel Sobek catalog, daydreaming of visiting far-flung exotic locations. The one destination that always stood out was Bhutan, the Buddhist “Land of the Thunder Dragon” in the Himalaya with some of the tightest tourist limits on the planet. I’m ecstatic to report that we’re (tentatively) booked for an 11-day trekking trip to Bhutan at the end of April.

This heron sat completely motionless for a long while.

This heron sat completely motionless for a long while.

And before that? My favorite travel memory was a six-day trip to Japan I did in 2009, stretching a pair of two-hour business meetings with Platinum Games in Osaka into a memory of a lifetime. Japan was, and remains, my absolute favorite destination. And the more I raved about my time in Japan, the more Kristin regretted not being able to come along (we were hosting a Korean exchange student at the time). I always said that when we finally made it back to Japan, I wanted to go for at least a month and follow the cherry blossoms northward as they painted the islands in pink and white petals. And, family concerns permitting, that’s what we’re going to do. The yen has fallen a lot since I was there six years ago (nearing a ten-year low versus the dollar) so there’s no sense in delaying, especially if we need to be in that corner of the world for our trip to Bhutan. So, in March, we’re going to head home to the Seattle area to spend some time with friends and retrieve some items from storage, then continue on to Japan, without our bikes, and follow the sakura northward across Honshu and Hokaido islands. The shutter button on my camera will get a workout, for sure.

A particularly camera-friendly cormorant.

A particularly camera-friendly cormorant.

So, the blog isn’t going to be about bicycle touring for a few months. Nevertheless, we’ll still be posting every one to two weeks and hope you continue to follow along as we document our travels in words and photos. We’ll be back to posting bike-related content once we return to Italy later this year and throw legs back over our trusty Salsa Fargos.

On our way back to the docks after a spontaneous 3-hour canoe trip in the Everglades.

On our way back to the docks after a spontaneous 3-hour canoe trip in the Everglades.

This was a hard choice to make, as we had to beat back the inevitable feelings of our decision signaling a failure or that we were quitting. It isn’t and we’re not. But I’m particularly sensitive to those feelings, given a small list of key regrets I carry through life. Oddly enough, the decision to box up the bikes and take some time off was even harder than pedaling across another mountain range, despite how much our bodies – and our hearts – knew doing so was the right thing to do. It would seem that we had reached a point where continuing to pedal onward, even though we weren’t enjoying it as much and had family concerns on the mind, had somehow become the easy thing to do. Weird, huh?

Part of that is your fault. So many of you have shown such great dedication in reading and commenting on the blog and on Facebook, and in so generously providing support and hospitality, that we simply didn’t want to let you down. We hope our detour isn’t a disappointment and that you understand our need to temporarily change gears, switch to the fast lane, and jump ahead a few dozen degrees of longitude.

Thanks for reading. We hope you continue to do so.

15 August, 2014

Scotland: There are No Wrong Turns

“Of course I’m biased on the route I would take, as I’d always go West to the Highlands!”

The island of Great Britain is less than 8% the size of the contiguous United States, but it presented a very big question: Which way should we go? We began our trip through the United Kingdom in the city of Inverness, in the center of Scotland’s northern coast, and, for the first time in our trip, were facing a real dilemma. On the one hand, my friend Ruaraidh, a native Scot, was recommending we go west. On the other, Edinburgh and Dunnottar Castle lay to the southeast—and I really wanted to head in their direction.

Dunnottar Castle, modern-day fairy tale.

Dunnottar Castle, modern-day fairy tale.

A week later, sitting in Edinburgh, I became paralyzed by the fear of missing out. I no longer saw the line I plotted on my map; I only saw the unmarked area, the roadside sights, people, and experiences that we’d be ignoring. We can go anywhere we want on this trip—we have the ultimate freedom—but we can’t go everywhere. I sat at my computer, Google Maps, TripAdvisor, and the Sustrans map of British Cycling Routes open in separate windows, and was overcome with stress. I had barely touched my beer, my hands were too busy supporting the heft of my aching head.

We camped for the night behind this little chapel... and waged war against the midges.

We camped for the night behind this little chapel… and waged war against the midges.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. It was supposed to be more fun. Kristin asked what was wrong.

“We had six years to plan this trip and we intentionally didn’t over-plan. And now I’m drowning here. I don’t know where to go.”

A delightful descent that made us quickly forget the 20% grade we had to climb to reach it!!!

A delightful descent that made us quickly forget the 20% grade we had to climb to reach it!!!

The truth was that I did know where I wanted to go. I had spent some time perusing UK travel guides at a library and stuck a bunch of pins in a digital map. All I had to do was plot a route that would collect the most points, a trend line that omitted the outliers. But, as with my Scottish mountain biking friend, I’ve also collected acquaintances aboard the Queen Mary 2 who each didn’t hesitate to recommend their own personal favorite spots. I glanced back and forth between my map of points, the bike routes, and my own paper road map of Great Britain and broke out in a sweat. Nothing made sense. I wasn’t cut out for this. It was getting too hard, too fast.

Fields of heather forever.

Fields of heather forever.

I suffered a horrible night’s sleep but awoke before dawn with a clear head and a confident disposition. I took up the mouse, plotted a route from Edinburgh to Melrose to Carlisle and onward through the Lake District. Just as I originally intended before hearing the siren song of the Coast and Castles route. It was just like being back at work, waking up early and solving a difficult boss battle on my first try after spending the prior night staring at a steady stream of “Game Over” screens. Achievement unlocked.

I scrolled through the photos I had taken during our first week in Scotland and saw them with fresh eyes. It was time for a pep-talk. No, Doug, we didn’t go west to the Highlands, but look at what we did see! Look at the views, the roads we found ourselves on, the places we camped! Was this not the Scotland you dreamed of? It was, I told myself.

The Well of Lecht.

The Well of Lecht.

Negativity bias will always lead to our being asked about the places we’re not going. We humans can’t help ourselves. And more than a few of you have heard me say something along the lines: “You can draw a thousand lines on a world map and never see everything.” I always believed this to be true—the map hanging in my office the past six years provided a daily reminder—but now I know this to be true on the small scale as well.

Great Britain isn’t a big place, but it’s got a lot to offer. No matter how much we don’t see, we’re still seeing more than if we had never come at all.

Cruising past St. Bridgett's Kirk across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh.

Cruising past St. Bridgett’s Kirk across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh.

This could get baaaaad. See what I did there?

This could get baaaaad. See what I did there?

 

Cawdor Castle from the botanical gardens

Cawdor Castle from the botanical gardens