Tag Archives: Asia
10 December, 2015

Day 628: Flying Home

The bags are packed, we returned the scooter, handed back the key to Rendira II, and indulged in one final massage. By the time this post goes live, we’ll be somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, flying a circuitous route from Bali to Australia to Los Angeles and onward to Seattle. From takeoff in Bali to touchdown at Sea-Tac: 27.5 hours.

We left at 11:55 p.m., five minutes before our visa expired.

The past month in Bali was the perfect wind-down from the trip. To arrive back in a place this beautiful and already know our way around, have our favorite restaurants, and know its flow and patterns was truly a gift to be cherished. Countless travelers have come and gone since we were last here, yet we were remembered. The welcome back hugs from our instructors were a nice touch. As was having our “usual” orders remembered by the waitresses at our favorite cafe. Long-term travel isn’t about packing your days “doing things” but rather about selecting a location and simply being.  And that’s what we did. We went to yoga nearly every day, a 90-minute morning session in a studio set in the treetops. It was the perfect way to ease into a day of relaxation and reflection. A little swim to cool down afterwards — it was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit almost every day — and then a few hours being productive in a cafe before taking another swim, reading, and going to the grocery store. Just like home.

Our home away from home is Bali. Pinch me.

Kristin cutting a papaya in our outdoor kitchen in Bali.

Kristin cutting a papaya in our outdoor kitchen in Bali.

Kristin starts work on January 11th and was notified today that the company performing her background check needs to do a criminal search for each of the countries we spent more than 30 days in. It’s an unusual situation, she’s in. Before this trip, I had never been in a foreign country for more than ten consecutive days. But now? Thanks to the meandering style of our journey, they’ll be having to run those criminal checks in Morocco, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Japan, and Indonesia. Lucky for them, we came up a couple days short of thirty in France, Spain, United Kingdom, and Canada.

We took the scooter for a day-trip up to the Tegallalang Rice Fields north of Ubud.

We took the scooter for a day-trip up to the Tegallalang Rice Fields north of Ubud.

This makes me giddy. It’s amazing to look back over our itinerary and know that there are six countries that we’ve now spent over a month in (and over two months in Italy and Indonesia). And not because it brings me some sort of bragging rights, but because I know certain towns and places so well that I can go back tomorrow and know where things are. I would recognize people, be able to identify restaurants we ate in, markets we shopped in, and know how to get around. I wouldn’t be lost; I wouldn’t need a map.

One of the joys of Bali is you never know when there's going to be another procession to a nearby temple.

One of the joys of Bali is you never know when there’s going to be another procession to a nearby temple.

 

Brain Freeze!

Brain Freeze!

I never wanted anything more from this trip than to feel at home anywhere we went in the world. And we did. From Pamplona to Kobe to Bordeaux to Edinburgh to Fargo, and everywhere in between, we have memories. For the rest of our lives, we will hear the name of a city or a country or a mountain range and instantly recall a friendly local who took time to chat with us; a restaurant we dined in; or a road  we pedaled along. Bicycle touring gives one on-the-ground knowledge the likes of which is impossible to obtain otherwise, save for walking. It’s this knowledge that means the most to me as we head home. It’s my most cherished souvenir.

I just paused my writing this to read the above to Kristin, to check with her on the tone and content. I read it aloud, as she likes me to do, and she nodded and returned a sad smile from across the room. We sat in silence for a few minutes; time we really don’t have to spare. The bags actually aren’t completely packed yet. There’s a rotisserie chicken cooling on the counter, we’re leaving for the airport in less than two hours. And just this past moment, as we sat in that silence, it finally dawned on us that this is really over. Six years of planning, two years of doing. And now it’s over. I always knew there’d be some tears eventually.

A lotus flower in the rooftop pond at the Four Seasons.

A lotus flower in the rooftop pond at the Four Seasons, a great place to stop for a drink in Ubud.

Where was I?

The same wonderful friends of ours, Katrina and Alan, who so generously hosted us after we sold our house and who drove us to the Seattle waterfront for our initial start, will be there picking us up tomorrow when we land. Great friends make the sturdiest bookends to our life’s biggest moments. We’ll be staying with them again while we get settled. They’re already filling our social calendar with Christmas parties and happy hours. I can’t wait. It’s also the reason why I’m so glad we took this time in Bali. We’ve met other long-term travelers whose segue back into real life was anything but smooth. People who were back at work within a few short days of pedaling their final mile. We used this past month to not only come down off the trip, but to plan for our return home. We’ve e-signed a lease on a townhome, finished a slew of digital chores we wanted to get done, and even started picking out furniture and a car. It might not sound like an effective use of one’s time in a tropical paradise, but that’s the reality of the kind of trip we’ve been on: the extraordinary eventually became ordinary.

And that’s how we knew it was time to go home.

The weekly dinner buffet at Yellow Flower Cafe. We had a standing reservation and are going to miss it.

The weekly dinner buffet at Yellow Flower Cafe. We had a standing reservation and are going to miss this place.

 

The volcano was out for our final yoga class this morning. Going to really miss this studio.

The volcano was out for our final yoga class this morning. Going to really miss this studio.

Thank you for reading; see you in the New Year!

The two of us on our final night of our travels, at Bridges restaurant in Ubud for happy hour.

One final photo from our final night abroad.

PS: We’ll be back early in the New Year with some fun to share concerning our future travel plans. Some of our Facebook followers have been busy chipping in with suggestions; the results will be made clear soon enough!

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!

22 October, 2015

The Chair and the Stool

I stood by the table, wallet in hand, waiting for the owner of the roadside restaurant to tally up our bill. Instead, he simply wrote the number 40 on the back of a scrap of paper. “Forty lira,” I asked “for kohvalti?” I was shocked. We shared a single plate of olives, vegetables, and cheeses along with a small fry pan of eggs and had two cups of tea each. It was a standard Turkish breakfast, the likes of which we’ve had a dozen times before, always included with the cost of our hotel. Hotel stays that often cost just 100 lira in total ($33 USD). I sighed, reached into my wallet and handed over the notes, $13 USD, along with a knowing, nodding smirk that let the gentleman know that, though I may not speak the language and couldn’t argue without resorting to histrionics, I knew damn well he was taking me for a ride.

That night, in the town of Kaman, Kristin and I sat down to a dinner of soup, salad, spicy adana kebab skewers with fries, Coca-Cola, and tea. Two of everything for the two hungry cyclists. The whole meal came to the equivalent of $11 USD. For every instance in which we felt we might have been getting overcharged, there were at least two or three times when we left a restaurant completely shocked about how much food we had been served for so little money. It all balances out in the end.

Matters of money and long-term independent travel go hand in hand. No matter what your budget, you can’t enjoy much of the latter without diligent tracking of the former. Kristin and I set out to stick to an average daily budget that we soon realized would be impossible for our preferred comfort level without spending a lot of time in less expensive countries. Front-loading our trip with North America and Europe, not to mention an unexpected five-week detour to pricey Japan, has yielded an average daily expenditure more than 50% over the unrealistic amount we budgeted for. Of course, that goal budget was essentially plucked out of thin air and “proved doable” on several short trips around Washington State. It’s easy to do without when you’re heading back to the comforts of home in a few days, less so when your trip is measured in months and years instead of days or weeks; harder still when wanting to indulge in the culinary delights of western Europe.

Wealth isn't a good indicator of how hard a person works.

Typical scene at the Ubud city market in Bali where hundreds of vendors supply all manners of food to the city’s residents.

But there we were, two Americans in Turkey and soon headed to Southeast Asia. Our financial tracking sheet showed our average daily spend dropping a little bit each day. And as it did, much to our delight, our out-of-money date pushed deeper into 2016.

Some travelers we’ve met make a show of demanding the lowest price possible at all times, regardless of where they are, where they’re from, or how it makes them look. They hunt for unconscionably low prices using their superior buying power (and often the desperation of the person they’re dealing with) as a weapon and tell tales of their conquests around the hostel table for all to marvel at. The less they paid, the more they gloat. Forget paying tourist prices, these people don’t stop until they’ve stripped every penny of profit out of the equation. These people may stretch their budget further than we will, but at what cost?

A woman selling fish at a market on the island of Flores.

A woman selling fish at a market on the Indonesian island of Flores.

It’s fun to get a good deal when you’re travelling. The less you pay, the more days you can enjoy yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve certainly marveled at some of the prices we’ve paid over the past eighteen months. But the one thing I don’t do, unless it’s part of the souvenir game, is haggle. Though I didn’t enjoy overpaying for breakfast that one morning in Turkey, I do think it’s important to sometimes take the loss gracefully and move on. Acknowledge the good fortune those of us from countries with a dominant currency are in and the inherent opportunity that exists simply from our birthplace. After all, long term travel is not something the great majority of the world’s population can ever even dream of doing. So we got charged a few bucks more than we maybe should have. So what? How many bottles of water did we buy this month for thirty cents each? Bottles that would have cost five times that in Europe or back home in the USA.

People have strong feelings about money and the economy. When we’re doing well personally, we think “the economy” is just fine. When we find ourselves out of work or fighting to get ahead, we project our own misfortune onto “the economy”.  This leaves nothing to be said of our political biases and preconceptions and the inherent geographic, skill, and educational variations in a large country. Not being an economist, I don’t really know (nor really care) how to accurately assess the condition of a nation’s economy. But I do know that, despite all of the political cheering and finger-pointing that goes on back home, the US Dollar is at or near an all-time high against a slew of the world’s currencies. If the US economy is as bad as I sometimes hear people say, then the rest of the world is doing even worse and we should still consider ourselves fortunate on the grand scale that is Earth.

It's easy to get frustrated by the people always trying to sell you something on the beaches in the Mediterranean and in Bali, but they're just trying to earn a living. We decided quickly that it was far more enjoyable to chat them up and maybe buy something instead of being rude or getting flustered.

It’s easy to get frustrated by the people always trying to sell you something on the beaches in the Mediterranean and in Bali, but they’re just trying to earn a living. We decided quickly that it was far more enjoyable to chat them up and maybe buy something instead of being rude or getting flustered.

Early this past summer a series of articles was published to The New York Times about the working conditions of nail salons throughout New York City. The gist of it was that the workers were being heavily exploited through a laundry list of illegal/unethical practices. I was very interested in some of the discussion that followed: women, customers of these various salons, were wondering what they should do. Should they boycott the businesses? Should they over-tip? Should they just go about things as normal and pretend they didn’t know any better? Many of the readers acknowledged that, by using these Asian (mostly Thai and Vietnamese) nail salons, they knew they were getting a really good service at a cost that was a fraction of that which a Caucasian owned and operated boutique salon would charge. They felt bad about that, but still wanted those low prices.

Ignoring the legal ramifications of the story in New York, the issue reminded me of a series of internal struggles I dealt with while in Indonesia earlier this year. Kristin and I had taken to getting frequent hour-long massages while in Bali. One day, we were asked if we also wanted a 30-minute foot rub after our massage. The massage was 70,000 IDR, the foot rub was going to be an extra 30,000 IDR for a total of $7.69 USD plus tip at the exchange rate at the time (it’d be even cheaper now). We said yes.

We took our seats in cushioned armchairs alongside three Chinese people and two Australians and sat back and enjoyed the relaxing comfort of a professional foot and calf massage. If you’ve never had someone spend thirty minutes professionally massaging your lower legs and feet with lotions and oils, it is even better than it sounds. But despite the wonderful sensation, I couldn’t help but feel bad about sitting in this nice elevated armchair as the young Javanese lady squatted down on a tiny stool and worked so hard to provide such an unnecessary, gratuitous service for such, through first-world eyes, a ridiculously low sum of money.

It didn’t feel right. I felt uncomfortable. It smacked of Imperialism, what with the visual of us, the moneyed tourists, sitting in the nice comfortable chairs on high, and the meager worker squatting over our bare feet. I looked around to those sitting alongside me: Kristin was dozing off, the Chinese people were playing with their phones and the Australians were doing likewise. A phalanx of young dark-haired, dark-skinned Indonesians squatted before us, working nonstop through the day and until late at night to give as many massages a day as possible.

Massage shops line many of the streets in the touristy areas of Bali and the women (and some men) call out to everyone who passes by. Some get desperate if business is slow. One grabbed me by the arm and pleaded with ever-lowering prices when I declined (I was late meeting Kristin for dinner). The prices are essentially standard, all of them offering an hour of pampering to the average tourist for the price of a McDonald’s combo meal; American prices, not European (Mickey D’s is far more expensive in Europe, no doubt part of the reason for the slimmer waistlines in continental Europe).

I know there are those who, upon reaching success, like to think it was all their own hard work that got them where they are. Hard work. People like to say that if you work hard you can be anything and have all your dreams come true. You just have to work hard for it. I’ve not seen many people work harder than these massage girls in Bali. Yet, there they were on the stool. And there we were on the chairs. I worked hard, was very good at what I did, but I didn’t work as hard as these girls do. I didn’t spend twelve hours a day, hunched over, working my hands and fingers and forearms into numbness for such little gain. The reason we’re in the chair and they’re on the stool is one of dumb luck. We won the birthplace lottery, being born in a first-world country (or to one of the right families in a modern China), whereas they didn’t. That’s it. We were born on third, as the saying goes. And we shouldn’t exploit those who were lucky to get hit by pitch.

“So, Doug, what are you going to do about it?” I asked myself.

I went surfing the next day and spent the better part of three hours thinking about that question. The answer that I came up with, which I’d like to now repeat as a reminder to myself as we prepare to spend our winter in Southeast Asia, is as follows: nothing, sort of.

Making daily offerings isn't a glamorous or high-paying job, but the result is a incense-filled, flower-laden country that makes everyone's day that much brighter.

Making daily offerings isn’t a glamorous or high-paying job, but the result is an incense-filled, flower-laden country that makes everyone’s day that much brighter.

My first idea was to boycott them, to not take advantage of our respective situations. But no, I decided, that only punishes them and deprives myself of something I enjoy. These are skilled massage technicians (they are every bit as good as any CMP I’ve experienced back home at a spa charging ten times that amount) who have come to Bali to do this. Why deprive them of the living they need to earn? Okay, so don’t boycott them, but maybe I should insist on tipping them a lot more? This gets tricky. Over-tipping can create problems of jealousy in the workplace, could lead to poor service to other customers, and could ultimately lead to a sense of entitlement and lesser quality of service. Am I even sure the girls get to keep their tips? No, I’m not. And if I’m the only one doing it, then what good does it do in the long run? Other than empty my wallet that much faster. Next question. So what about the base price? Never haggle. I didn’t anyway, but I’ve seen people routinely try to haggle down the prices. Don’t do that. The prices are already low enough for anyone who can afford to fly to Bali, even if coming from nearby Australia.  Let the shops set the price and pay what they ask. And so on and so on, I debated back and forth with myself a litany of actions and undesirable/inconclusive outcomes.

I decided that, as travelers visiting less developed, inexpensive countries, perhaps the best thing we can do is to just be aware. Acknowledge the situation, take comfort in our positions of good fortune, and refrain from taking advantage of those in a less advantageous position by trying to wrest even lower prices. Don’t demean, but don’t flaunt your relative wealth either. Don’t tell the clerk how cheap everything is — save your excitement or shock for when you are out of earshot. Not only is it insulting, but the more people going around remarking how cheap everything is, the more prices get raised, and the less buying power the locals end up having. Instead, employ their services, tip them an honest, fair amount, and most of all, look to the people you do business with as equals. For after all, that’s what they are. Equals. They’re human beings just like you and me.

Update: This post was written several weeks ago, back while we were in Turkey. We are currently on a freighter, bound for Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia and are out of contact until November 3rd. You can view our ship’s position here. I suspect this post will go live as we exit the Red Sea. We’ll be making a port call in Sri Lanka near the end of October.

3 October, 2015

Turkish Overload

Anybody who’s ever gone abroad for any extended period knows that sooner or later you end up doing something while travelling that you wouldn’t ever consider doing while home. Travel is funny like that. It has a way of stripping away your inhibitions, filling you with courage, or even leaving you in such a desperate situation that you have no choice but to take a deep breath, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. For some, it might mean a bungie-jump off a bridge in New Zealand or perhaps a daring stroll on a nude beach in France, or having to risk a night out under the stars without tent or sleeping bag. For us, two hungry cyclists on the outskirts of a small town in Turkey, it meant something far more unlikely. And unseemly. We ate at Domino’s.

I know, I know. How will we ever readjust to American life? Are we even still housebroken?

The adana kebab and jalapeno toppings were on fresh-tossed dough, albeit with too little sauce, but all in all it was a decent pizza. Foreign travel never ceases to expand one’s mind.

Heading west out of Capadocia.

Heading west out of Capadocia.

Our forays outside our comfort zone continued the next morning when, with a head full of mucus, a constant cough and slight fever, I led the way south through a series of mountains with ever-darkening skies giving chase. Wishing nothing more than to lie in bed and embrace my bout of man flu, as is my right duty, I found myself, instead, on my trusty Fargo for six miserable hours, in periodic rainstorms, through a desolate stretch of western Turkey. Kristin offered soft, nurturing words of encouragement throughout the ride while making sure to replace my stash of Gummi Bears with cold medicine from our first aid kit.

Into the mountains of western Turkey. Gorgeous river valley.

Into the mountains of western Turkey. A gorgeous river valley that demanded to be photographed.

That night, in Çanakkale, I rinsed down some Theraflu capsules with a complimentary bottle of water, paying no mind to the broken safety seal. Glass bottles get reused all the time in Greece and Turkey as a way to reduce waste; hotels and restaurants routinely refill the bottles from large jugs of spring water. I spent the next two days, including a visit to Ancient Troy and the eve of my 40th birthday, focused on a task I always thought reserved for a later period in life: getting through the day without soiling myself.

Pro Tip: Petrol Ofisi service stations have the cleanest, most westernized bathrooms of all the petrol chains in Turkey. Memorize that logo at the link; it’ll be there for you when you need it most.

As readers of our newsletter are already aware, we are deviating from our original plan to travel overland across Asia — our reasons include the oncoming winter, likely visa difficulties, desire and lack thereof, and money, among others — and are instead departing Athens sometime around October 15th aboard a cargo ship bound for Singapore. This ship, in fact. In order to catch that cargo ship, we have to be back in Bodrum by October 8th to catch an overnight ferry back across the Aegean Sea. This has left little margin for error in our 1600-mile (2,575 km) loop around western Turkey.

Near the Galata Bridge and spice market in Istanbul.

Near the Galata Bridge and spice market in Istanbul.

We were worried that the aggressive itinerary — from Bodrum to Cappadocia to Istanbul and back to Bodrum — wouldn’t leave enough time for sightseeing, that we’d be so focused on each leg’s destination that we wouldn’t cherish the in-between places as much as we try to do. Nevertheless, we plunged ahead and went for it.

Crowds gather throughout the day except during prayer service.

Crowds gather throughout the day except during prayer service.

Now in Izmir, with our Turkish finish line just a few days of riding away, I can say that we indeed spent most of those days heads down, just trying to get the miles in. Every day was the same: wake up in an unfamiliar bed, eat the same hotel-provided breakfast of cold vegetables, cheese, olives, bread, and hard-boiled eggs, and then ride to the next hotel five or six hours in the distance. Sleep, wake up, repeat. And in looking back I can see that I don’t have many memories of these days or even many photos either. In fact, our most pleasant memory of this time was that of discovering the robust network of ferries that crisscross the Sea of Marmara. Despite our aversion to sailing, we do enjoy ferries and it was with great relief that we chopped two days of cycling off our route by entering and leaving the European side of Istanbul by sea.

Kristin with the headscarf she bought for going into the Blue Mosque.

Kristin with the headscarf she bought for going into the Blue Mosque.

I spent a fair bit of time this past week trying to think of something to write about (hence the delay). And each time I tried to form an opinion of Turkey, I saw two friendly faces pop to the forefront of my mind. One was that of Brad, the first person I befriended upon moving to the Seattle area in 2002. The other is Joe, a frequent co-author and friend of mine whose last email I now realize I am comically and unforgivably late in replying to. Next year, perhaps?

Brad, despite being an expert at long-form critique, has for as long as I’ve known him, been equally skilled at providing simple, one-word opinions. He’s been deploying everyone’s favorite snarky onomatopoeia, meh, with all of the timing and potency of a precision-guided F-bomb for as long as I can remember. Joe, on the other hand, doesn’t say “meh.” At least not with his voice. No, when asked to give an opinion on something neither great nor awful, memorable nor deplorable, Joe provides a squinting, wincing, tortuous, body-twisting, shoulder shrug that says all that needs to be said. As if to show how physically painful offering an opinion on something so… so utterly meh would be.

Blue Mosque at night with colorful fountain.

Blue Mosque at night with colorful fountain.

Which leaves me here, in a place neither suited for one-word analysis nor live-action melodrama. I will try to explain my ambivalence as best as I can.

The nine days we spent cycling from Goreme to Istanbul are a blur of desert, wheat fields, and mountains. Even the tea stops soon began to feel commonplace and forgettable. The landscape, though expansive and seldom scarred by man’s blemishes, lacked majesty. The food we enjoyed so much earlier in our travels soon began to taste as flavorless as our days. Had I not have ceased journaling weeks ago, I would have certainly given it up en route to Istanbul. What would be the point?

Istanbul was no better. That exotic-sounding city whose twice-named history was etched in my memory by the They Might be Giants cover song of the same name, Istanbul is a place that beckons with fantastical mental imagery. Istanbul. Where West meets East and vice-versa. Istanbul. Backgammon boards, hookah parlors, labyrinthine bazaars, carpet dealers, grind-filled itty-bitty cups of coffee and all the pistachios and apricots you can eat. I’d like to point out right here the similarities of the words imagination and imagery. Which begat which? The Istanbul we found was, in reality, no more exotic than most any other European city.

Looking across the Golden Horn to Karakoy and the Galata Tower in Istanbul.

Looking across the Golden Horn to Karakoy and the Galata Tower in Istanbul.

Perhaps it’s because we have been travelling for so long and seen so much that was truly different. Perhaps it is because the people who are awed by Istanbul’s presumed exoticism arrive there straight from the West and haven’t already been in the country for a month like we have. Maybe they’ve never been to a Muslim country before. Or maybe they saw what they expected to see as opposed to what they found. Whatever the reason, Kristin and I found Istanbul to be immediately forgettable. It’s dirty, smelly, and carries nearly as much graffiti as Athens. Tourist attractions, despite low occupancy rates following last month’s attack on the city’s US Consulate, had long lines and were so overtly touristy, it made us lose our interest quickly.

This isn’t to say that it’s not worth visiting. It is, even if only to know we don’t need to return. And we’re happy to have walked through the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (i.e. Blue Mosque) and wandered the spice market, and had the obligatory fish sandwich down at the Galata Bridge, and saw where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died in Dolmabache Palace, and scoffed down multiple kokoretsi (sheep intestine) sandwiches near Taksim Square. These were all fine things to do. But that Turkish mystique eluded us. The exoticism escaped us. Ultimately it was just another city filled with traffic and touts and cheaply-made souvenirs and overpriced restaurants.

We caught up to these 5 Iranian Cyclists on our way south along the Aegean Coast. They didn’t hesitate to offer us some Gummi Bears (my kind of people!) and invite us to Iran, insisting that we’d love it. One day, I hope!

The truth is, we’ve soured on Turkey. The petty peculiarities we found endearing several weeks ago are now common irritants and downright annoying. We’ve gotten jaded, but it’s not entirely Turkey’s fault. One of the things we’ve noticed in this trip is that our motivation takes a dip after every three months of steady bicycle touring. That’s part of the reason we’ve booked this cargo ship to Singapore. Nineteen days at sea. No Internet. No email. Nothing. Nineteen days to digest everything we’ve seen and done since leaving Rome in June and to regain the desire to see more. Believe it or not, one does tire of a steady stream of new sights and sounds and major tourist attractions. At least we do.

Turkey stopped being interesting somewhere between Goreme and Istanbul. And part of that was because of everything that came before. All that time in Italy and Greece as well as those first few weeks in Turkey. Too much stimuli. But part of it is Turkey’s fault (and not just the omnipresent flies and cats that occupy every restaurant in the country). Never in my life, aside from a morning-after-9/11-America, have I seen so many flags flying in a country. The crescent moon and star fly on fields of red throughout Asia Minor; on trucks, on houses, on restaurants and gas stations and hotels. The Turkish flag is everywhere. Yet there’s something even more widespread: litter. For as bad as the litter was in southern Italy and Greece (and it’s really bad in both those places), it’s far worse in Turkey. Plastic bags and bottles line every street, broken glass dots the shoulder of every road. Disposable cartons, wrappers, and dirty diapers — yes, DIAPERS! — get tossed out the windows of moving cars as if nothing could be more normal. We’ve seen these things happen multiple times.

We share the roads with vehicles of all sorts in Turkey.

We share the roads with vehicles of all sorts in Turkey. And always get a friendly honk or a wave.

We’ve camped exactly one time in Turkey and the main reason for that is because of the litter. We’ve pedaled right on past countless picnic areas, water springs, and other clearings that would have been perfect for camping if not for the piles and piles of garbage everywhere. For a nation of people who seem to be so patriotic and so proud to be Turkish, they sure do treat their landscape like a wasteland.

Other touring cyclists have warned about the stray dogs and the aggressive rock-throwing children of Turkey. We’ve encountered no such kids and not one of the hundreds of stray dogs (they’re everywhere) has so much as lunged at us. Both animals and people have been nothing but courteous. Most smile and wag their tails, the dogs that is. Our annoyances have been constrained to aggressive drivers around Izmir, the constant buzzing presence of flies, the stench of urine, and the litter. Oh the litter. It’s depressing. It smells. And you can’t avoid it. And I don’t mean to imply that the United States is litter-free. Not at all. Truckers make sure there’s a noticeable amount of litter on America’s highways as well. But I’ve never seen anything like what we’ve seen in Turkey, at least not in a country this wealthy. And this proud.

But I guess, as the song goes, that’s nobody’s business but the Turks.

15 September, 2015

Photos: Flying Above Cappadocia

We’ve turned the corner back to the west, to Istanbul, after spending three wonderful nights in the heart of Cappadocia’s fairy tale landscape. The central Turkey region of Cappadocia, a name dating back to the Persians meaning “land of beautiful horses”, contains multiple extinct volcanoes that, over the thousands and millions of years predating ours, the Persians, and the Hittites arrivals, buried the landscape in ash and basalt. Rain, wind and man went to work carving a fantastical landscape of narrow rock spires, many of them capped with a slab of basalt. Back home in Washington state, we call these landforms hoodoos. Here in Turkey they call them fairy chimneys. They’re basically the same thing, though here in Cappadocia, particularly around the town of Goreme, hundreds (thousands?) of these tufa-based fairy chimneys were hollowed out and became homes, churches, and storerooms.

The best and most popular way to witness this amazing landscape is from the air. Every morning nearly a hundred hot air balloons take to the sky above Goreme and fly up to 3,000 feet above the fairy chimneys and valleys that make up Goreme National Park.  Like the camel trek in the Sahara, hiking with the Komodo Dragons, and taking the Queen Mary 2 across the Atlantic, we decided it was time for another bucket-list type of splurge. Riding in a hot air balloon was something Kristin and I have always wanted to do and there’s arguably no better place to do that in Cappadocia. So after 11 days of cycling from Bodrum to Goreme — and with my fortieth birthday coming up —  we lived it up for three nights in a fancy cave suite, went sailing on a 90-minute sunrise balloon ride, and joined an all-day tour of the villages, valleys, and one of the underground cities in the area — the Hittites carved out 32 multi-level underground cities in the 6th century BC, some extending over 150 feet below the surface and spreading out over 3 kilometers in area. The underground city we visited was 8 levels deep, extended over 2 kilometers in area and is believed to have been able to temporarily house up to 4,000 people. Goreme’s location along the Silk Road meant it was a prime target to brigands and invaders and the peace-loving Hittites found it better to carve out extensive underground hiding places rather than face the invaders in combat.

But enough with the history lesson (as told by our tour guide), let’s get on with the photos!

Last-minute burn before we boarded for our sunrise flight.

Last-minute burn before we boarded for our sunrise flight.

Another Butterfly Balloon over Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia.

Another Butterfly Balloon over Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia.

Sunrise over the town of Goreme where nearly a hundred balloons set flight almost every morning.

Sunrise over the town of Goreme where nearly a hundred balloons set flight almost every morning.

Flying east into the sun.

Flying east into the sun.

Rocks and balloons!

Rocks and balloons!

Wow! The interior of our hotel room at Ottoman Cave Suites in Goreme.

The interior of our hotel room at Ottoman Cave Suites in Goreme.

Table with a view. Sunset at Goreme from Nostalgia Restaurant.

Table with a view. Sunset at Goreme from Nostalgia Restaurant.

The Three Beauties fairy chimneys at Urgup.

The Three Beauties fairy chimneys at Urgup.

On a hike in Soganli Valley.

On a hike in Soganli Valley.

Pigeon Valley from Uchisar.

Pigeon Valley from Uchisar.

Kristin in one of the fairy chimneys of Soganli Valley.

Kristin in one of the fairy chimneys of Soganli Valley.

I want to take a moment just to say something nice about the town of Goreme that was both surprising and refreshing. Yes, this town is a tourist hot spot. But a tourist trap it is not! We found the prices of the hotels and restaurants to be well within the range of everywhere else we’ve been so far in Turkey — that it is to say, much less than Greece and Italy! The prices of snacks, beers, and groceries at the markets were as well. Better still, there’s no high-pressure sales annoyances to deal with; you can browse the market stalls and craft shops without being hassled; and the touts that are present keep their distance and are polite. Our tour guide, Gulsen, from New Goreme Tours not only really seemed to have our best interests in mind when it came to steering us clear of rip-off “wineries” and museums that offer little to no value, but it was clear that she was well-trained in dealing with westerners. And trust me, we North Americans and Europeans (and Aussies and Kiwis too) have certain idiosyncrasies about us that not every tour guide is ready for.

So if you’re thinking of taking a trip to Turkey, don’t hesitate. Go! And if you were worried about the hot air balloon rides not being worth it or Goreme and the Cappadocia region being one giant tourist trap, you can put that fear to rest as well. Yes, it’s extremely popular, but even right now in high season it didn’t feel the least bit crowded and the people in the tourism industry here really know what they’re doing and never once make you feel like you’re just a bag of money to them. That being said, definitely splurge on one of the 90-minute hot air balloon rides, as they are capped at 12 passengers whereas the 60-minute flights pack 20 people into the same size basket. We went with Rick Steves recommended Butterfly Balloon Tours and would go again in an instant. Our pilot, Mike, is British (i.e. fluent English speaker), had once flown over the North Pole in a hot air balloon, and has been in Turkey for 15 years. Butterfly offered a safe, professional service from the hotel pickup to the champagne toast back on land. Last but not least, we also highly recommend our hotel. Ottoman Cave Suites is small and very boutique-ish, but also very high on service and attention and in a great location.

Still not sold? Here’s a video from everyone’s favorite Seattle-area travel guru, Rick Steves, from his visit to Cappadocia.

Special Thanks: We wish to once again offer our continued thanks and acknowledgment to Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc for their generous sponsorship of our journey. Thank you so much!