Tag Archives: Money
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.

9 August, 2015

Greece: A Perfect Time to Visit

We were sitting in Ancient Olympia, enjoying the cooling sensation of the misters attached to a street-spanning maple tree, hoping to stop sweating before our daily salads and souvlaki arrived to our sidewalk table. My shirt was soaked. Mistake number one was visiting the ruins during the middle of the day. Mistake number two — mine alone — was deciding to sprint the length of the ancient track. The 192 meter pebble-strewn dirt track dates back to the 5th century B.C. and begged to be ran. Clothed, shoed (barely), and unencumbered by neither shield nor sword nor cuirass, I managed to run the distance in 28 seconds flat. Not bad for a guy about to turn 40 who hasn’t sprinted in a decade; absolutely pedestrian for the 20-year old miler I once was. But yes, I timed myself. I allowed myself this display of mid-life foolishness in part because it was Ancient Olympia and it had to be done, but mostly because there was nobody there to see me embarrass myself.

Was just posing for a photo on the 5th century B.C. stadium track but did end up "sprinting" the 192 meters for the fun of it.

Was just posing for a photo on the 5th century B.C. stadium track but did end up “sprinting” the 192 meters for the fun of it.

We followed the Greek banking crisis very closely during our final weeks in Italy, hoping a deal would be reached before too long, that the banks would reopen, and that life for the common Greek citizen would return to some semblance of normal. Now, writing from Athens, I can report that the shelves are stocked, the banks are open, and the lines for the cash machines are back to normal, that is to say virtually nonexistent. The only thing missing are the tourists.

I was talking with a good friend of mine several years ago about Greece, during the last round of bailout worries. His wife wanted to visit Greece, but he was afraid of a possible run on the banks ruining their travel plans. Buoyed by the alcohol we were enjoying and the happiness I always feel whenever I see my old friends from New Jersey, I replied with a flippant, callow response: something about holding up his MasterCard and ordering another round of drinks.

Now, having been in the country for three weeks and talking with locals and visitors alike, I realize we both missed the mark with our assessments of how the situation might affect visitors. For starters, Greece is primarily a cash economy. You’re not going to get very far trying to rely on a credit card for the bulk of your every day transactions (though I have yet to be refused when trying to pay with a credit card in nicer stores and restaurants in larger towns). It was the same throughout Italy and in Morocco. We knew this before we arrived and brought a month’s worth of Euros from Italy with us into the country, stashed between multiple hiding spots in our panniers — shhh, it’s a secret! That said, like a visitor coming from overseas, we also prepay online for any planned hotel stays, if only to conserve our cash reserves. Tonight is our fourth night at a cheap hotel in Athens; I booked the stay two weeks ago online. As for the chaos a run on the banks may have induced, I suspect it likely would not have extended far beyond the major squares and government centers in Athens and a few larger cities. Part of the reason that 30 billion Euros have been withdrawn from the Greek banking system over the past few years, we’ve been told, is that many people throughout the country have already withdrawn their savings and hide the money at home, particularly those in the islands and the smaller villages in the countryside (much also fled westward in the pockets of emigrants). So, in a way, the run has already taken place. But, like my efforts on the track in Ancient Olympia, it was too slow to notice.

Ancient Messene stadium and mausoleum in the distance. No need to go running here with 20 more miles to go!

Ancient Messene stadium and mausoleum in the distance. No need to go running here with 20 more miles to go!

We spent two nights in Ancient Olympia, camping a few blocks from downtown, and making friends with two separate Dutch travelers we met, Mark and Joost, the latter so generously shared the homemade schnapps he picked up from a roadside vendor somewhere in Montenegro or Albania. Our route carried us into the mountains of the central Peloponnese where the heat didn’t abate and the mountains steepened. Planning one week at a time, and looking for a place to celebrate our anniversary, I routed us south past Ancient Messene to the coastal city of Kalamata. Yes, like the olives. Our ride into Kalamata was turning into another one of the suffer-fests each of our recent blog posts have chronicled. I wasn’t sure the climb to the hilltop town of Ancient Messene was going to be worth the effort. This time I let Kristin make the call: she felt we’d regret passing it up if we straight-lined for Kalamata. And so we added another grueling, sun-baked climb to our collection, only to then wander amongst additional 4th century B.C. ruins. And it was worth it. Sort of. Maybe if we were in a car.

What I didn’t realize when planning our route into Kalamata was that the only way out of Kalamata was up and over a very steep mountain range. We wanted to visit the Byzantine city of Mystras, just a short distance outside of Sparta, but to get there was going to be brutally difficult. I spent an entire afternoon in Kalamata trying to plot a less mountainous route, but none proved tempting.

The mountainous highway 82 leading from Kalamata to Mystras.

The mountainous highway 82 leading from Kalamata to Mystras.

Though Kalamata itself has very little to attract the foreign visitor aside from the beach and cheap restaurants, we are so thrilled we went. For if we hadn’t, we’d never have ended up on the stunning Highway 82 that leads up and over the mountain to Mystras and Sparta. While much of the Peloponnese contains dry, barren mountain sides with periodic olive groves, the descent into Mystras on Highway 82 dives into one of the narrowest gorges we’ve encountered. The road corkscrews and hairpins downward so tightly, the GPS track on my Garmin resembled a bowl of spaghetti. I’d set up by the side of the road to photograph Kristin and see her enter the frame, on the next switchback, directly beneath me. I’d stand on a bend and see the same road twist in and out of the view three and sometimes four times from one position. Further down the mountain the road disappeared completely into a narrow rock tunnel, barely a lane wide and with a sharp turn. More cave than a tunnel.

Further down on the descent into the gorge near Mystras.

Further down on the descent into the gorge leading to Mystras.

We climbed nearly 5,000 feet in a short 37 miles that day, a ride that should have shredded our knees and tore our willpower to pieces, but it didn’t. The days off in Kalamata, after all of those grueling miles since leaving Rome, left us rested and ready to tackle anything. Finally, after a month of being back on the bikes, we were back in the shape we were in last December. Alas, no more tales of woe!

We stopped at a spring halfway up the climb to refill our water bottles and, while eating the leftover dinner we took with us from Kalamata, were approached by a pair of Dutch travelers. Our bicycles continue to draw attention everywhere we go and nobody ever hesitates to strike up a conversation. And nothing surprises them more — not our route, distance pedaled, or our time away from home — than the fact that we are Americans. For such a populated country as the United Sates is, spotting an American away from home continues to be a rarity for most other travelers. The Dutch, on the other hand, are everywhere. And we love encountering them.

Several hours later, grinning from the euphoria of that unforgettable descent into Mystras, we were camped alongside four bicycle tourists — a family with two teenage daughters who had been touring every summer since the girls were out of diapers. Dutch, naturally. We walked into the village square to get groceries a little while later and, while waiting for the store to reopen at 6 pm, we heard a call. The man we met at the mountain spring came running over, gave us great big hugs, and implored us to join he and his wife for a drink. A round of beers turned into a round of Tsipouro then, while dodging the first rainstorm we had seen in over a month, a round of Ouzo. Ans and Harry, well into their 70s and very well-traveled, then generously invited us to join them for dinner where we were drinking. Their treat, our great fortune. We got back to the campground sometime after 11 pm; vowing to never go anywhere without our camera again.

We unfortunately didn’t run into Ans and Harry while touring the Byzantine temples and monasteries of Mystras the next day. Then again, aside from the touring cyclist family and a small French tour group, there weren’t many people there at all. Everywhere we go, we hear the same lament: the tourists are staying away because of the banking crisis. The crisis dominated the news early in the summer when most travelers were making their plans. Italy is reaping the benefits, particularly from the German tourists who are largely boycotting Greece altogether. It’s a tough situation, the effects mostly being felt by those with no control. So it goes, as my favorite author would say.

Gorgeous riding along the coast near Alkiona, northeast of Corinth.

Gorgeous riding along the coast near Alkioni, northeast of Corinth, en route to Athens.

From Mystras we continued northward to Mycenae, the 15th century B.C. archaeological site with mythical ties to Perseus, Cyclops, and King Agamemnon. It is here where Homer supposedly received much of his inspiration for writing The Iliad. And, in turn, where I’ve been inspired to try and read it without the forced supervision of a high school English teacher. My feat too shall become legend, if successful.

Looking south to the Acropolis from the Agora.

Looking south to the Acropolis from the Agora in Athens.

It wasn’t until we reached the Acropolis in Athens where, alas, the tourists have emerged in larger quantities. But even then, we bought our combo tickets at the nearby Temple of Olympian Zeus and didn’t have to wait in a queue to get in. We spent our first full day in Athens with a group of three teachers from New York; the first Americans we’ve encountered in nearly 6 weeks of being back in Europe. The guide for the free tour that brought us all to Syntagma Square was a no-show so, armed with Jeff’s historical knowledge and my map-reading ability, we set off on our own and had a wonderful day together. From Hadrian’s Arch to the Theater of Dionysus to the Parthenon to the Agora, and ultimately to the miraculously preserved Temple of Hephaestus, we walked miles through the text books of our youth. So much of our Western way of life can be traced back to these very buildings we walked amongst! Math! Theater! Democracy! Kristin and I couldn’t help but sit in the Theater of Dionysus — a structure over 2500 years old! — and feel the influence this theater’s design has had on every stage to follow, including our own beloved, modest, Taproot Theater in Seattle. The more we saw, the more amazing our being there in person came to feel.

The Temple of Hephaestus and our new friends in the Agora.

The Temple of Hephaestus and our new friends Jeff, David, and Jessica.

Away from the Acropolis and the other major historical attractions, Athens suffers. A block in any direction away from a major site or upscale hotel lands you on pockmarked, graffiti-covered, alleys. The graffiti covers every surface, litter collects in numerous gutters, bus stops, and abandoned storefronts.  And there are many of these abandoned storefronts in the immigrant neighborhood where our hotel is located. The sidewalks are in shambles. The facades of numerous buildings cracked and crumbling.  It’s not an unsafe city; we remain comfortable even while walking across town at midnight. We’ve passed junkies shoving one another, a multitude of homeless sleeping in the shadows, and squatters clambering through a kicked-out window in abandoned apartment buildings. Outside our hotel, an elderly man smelling of urine and sweat shouts at the moon. But we are ignored, free to ponder the ubiquitous anarchy symbols while forever minding our step lest we step in a puddle that isn’t rainwater. Our presence in this neighborhood is, to use the Greek word, an anachronism but we move about as if largely unseen.

Nevertheless, the conditions of the city does weigh on one’s soul. Who can live amongst such vandalized beauty and not feel the effects? We see it in the hardened, dark eyes of the servers and bartenders; in the looks of the mini-mart clerks; and on the faces of the souvlaki slingers. It drains the soul. This is a city of monumental historic significance, a region of immeasurable natural beauty, but a country with ever-mounting financial and immigration hurdles before it.

Some of the more attractve graffiti in Athens.

Some of the more attractve graffiti in Athens.

August is the busiest time of the year to visit Greece but we find ourselves often seated alone in restaurants, tented amongst an array of empty campsites, and visiting world-renown archaeological attractions with just a smattering of other people. We hear this will change on the Aegean islands, where we head next, but that doesn’t help those here in Athens and across the Peloponnese or on Kefalonia where the hardworking, friendly people reliant on tourism would really like you to come and visit. And, unlike in Italy, you don’t even have to bring your own toilet paper.

Special Thanks: To Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc. for their continued support of our journey and to Ans and Harry for the wonderful meal and drinks in Mystras. We hope the rest of your travels were enjoyable.

9 June, 2015

Peeling Back Singapore’s Shallow Veneer

Letting our curiosity get the better of us and knowing our flight would connect in Singapore anyway, we decided to spend a few days in the world’s most expensive city. We needlessly compounded this mistake by foregoing a hostel in favor of cashing in some of my slowly replenishing loyalty points for three nights at the Hilton Singapore, smack dab in the middle of the retail mania that is Orchard Road. Those who like to deride my fellow Americans for their abject consumerism need to visit Asia; we Yanks can’t hold a candle to the Japanese and Singaporeans when it comes to shopping.

Stepping out of our air-conditioned palace — please mind the Ferrari parked outside  — and into the sweltering heat of Singapore, we eschewed the subway in favor of a lengthy walk across the city, from one end of the tourist map to the other, pin-balling our way past myriad Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and Chanel storefronts. Pedestrian passages led under busy intersections into multi-level underground gauntlets of shopping malls. Buy, buy, buy! Several blocks later, the same luxury boutiques repeated themselves. This is where I’d try to force a simile about replacing other cities’ ubiquitous green and white coffee cups with luxury handbags, if not for a sign announcing a celebration for the opening of Singapore’s one-hundredth Starbucks. Apparently, you can have both.

Appropriate art along Orchard Street in Singapore: Businessman posture while ladies shop.

Appropriate art along Orchard Road in Singapore: Businessman posture while ladies shop.

Some ninety minutes later we arrived at Gardens By the Bay, one of the few free, natural attractions in a city designed to pamper the expense-report-filing businessmen and their platinum-card-wielding wives. In fairness, the whole of Singapore is one giant park, meticulously landscaped gardens and groves of trees occupy nearly as much prime real estate as the stupendous architecture. Gardens By the Bay is different, though. The sprawling greenery is home to over 100 hectares of gardens containing the native species from a dozen different Asian countries, anchored by eighteen artificial “super trees” that provide support for fifty meters of vertical gardens. It’s stunning, even if the rivulets of sweat streaming into your eyes make photography a challenge. Of course, a free walk through the impressive grounds only makes the two climate-controlled biodomes all the more enticing. The glass-domed, air-conditioned Cloud Forest garden simulates the environment at 2,000 meters, similar to that of the famed cloud forest of Monteverde in Costa Rica. Definitely worth a visit, even if only to learn about how the park manages to be energy neutral through the use of biomass furnaces and solar power. And, despite the signs, buying a ticket to just one of the domes is entirely possible. Just ask.

Gardens by the Bay with a few of its "super grove" of trees and its giant climate-controlled attractions.

Gardens by the Bay with a few of its “super grove” of trees and its giant climate-controlled attractions. An absolutely world-class attraction — and partially free! — in a city seemingly devoid of things to do other than go shopping.

Back outside and hungry, we were faced with the reality of being a tourist in Singapore: the prices are insane. Walking along Boat Quay near Marina Bay, we saw signs advertising a bucket of five bottles of Corona beer for S$48 ($35 USD). A single bottle of Bud Light, a beer I try not to drink even when offered free, cost the equivalent of $11 USD. Okay, maybe it’s just alcohol that’s expensive, I try to tell myself. We go in search of lunch and bounce from restaurant to restaurant in search of an affordable meal. Singapore has a well-deserved reputation for serving up some of the world’s best food, but it doesn’t come cheap. The prices started out as laughable and migrated to insulting. Small dishes of stir-fry, little more than glorified side-dishes, were more than three times the price we would expect in North America or Europe. Finally, after allowing our sticker-shocked faces to show for a little too long, one of the servers at a sidewalk restaurant approached with an offer: “If you’d like, you can have anything on the menu for 30% off.” She then handed us another menu, one focusing just on the live seafood dishes, with prices up to 60% off. Still, an order of Singapore’s famed chili crab would have set us back about $60 USD. “Only S$9 for a jug of beer,” she added, sweetening the deal. We’d be whispered similar offers of lower prices throughout our stay.

Realizing that we were quite literally haggling for our lunch, I didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or amused. Many of us go through a phase as children where we want to have the most expensive things as a way of staving off mockery from our classmates. In my youth, for us boys, it was sneakers. There were the kids with the Nike, Adidas and Reebok sneakers and then there were those of us with the discount-store Velcro embarassments. And of course, having the latter meant non-stop derision from those sporting the former. I couldn’t wait to go to school that first September in which I had my first pair of name-brand shoes. Fortunately, most of us mature and eventually begin to celebrate a bargain. For me, finding a very good product at a bargain price is far more impressive than being able to afford top-of-the-line at a sky’s-the-limit price. That is not a mentality for Singapore.

The majority of Singapore's 5 million residents live in government housing projects such as this one.

The majority of Singapore’s 5 million residents live in government housing projects such as this one. Careful city zoning ensures that everything a person needs (police, medical, library, groceries, etc.,) is found within 5km of each of these project buildings.

Seeing the prices for the food and drink, the multitude of exotic Italian sports cars, and the luxury storefronts — complete with tourists posing for photos in front of sculpture-like Chanel and Prada signs while clutching their matching shopping bags — I couldn’t help but think of the phrase, “F-U Money.” Only here, the neologism should be interpreted: If you even have to think about money, the joke is F’ing on you!

Singapore isn’t just expensive, it’s a price point that doesn’t make sense. I used to think people got rich for being smart and, usually, conservative with their money. No, there’s nothing smart about the prices here. It’s not about intelligence, but about ostentatious wealth and flash. And the money is flowing south from China. Walking back along Orchard Road to our hotel, I remembered a conversation that we had with a British ski instructor who had spent his winter working at a Japanese ski resort in Hokaido. He told us about the Chinese tourists who would book four hours of private ski instruction, arrive on time, pose for a group photo with him, and then pay and leave. “They didn’t want to learn how to ski or snowboard; they just wanted photographic proof that they could afford four hours of instruction from a white ski instructor,” he said shrugging his shoulders in a I-don’t-understand-it-either kind of way. The same people, he added, would brag about how much they overpaid for a hotel room or dinner to other tourists or insult complete strangers by asking them which hotel they were staying in, only to then express pity or say how that hotel, often of the four-stars variety, “just didn’t meet their standards.”

Trendy restaurants along Boat Quay in Singapore where colonial-era buildings bump up against futuristic skyscrapers.

Trendy restaurants along Boat Quay in Singapore where colonial-era buildings bump up against futuristic skyscrapers and the city’s many waterways.

It’s one thing to worry about the costs as a budget-minded long-term traveler, but what about the tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees who have come from Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Malaysia? These people taking perilous journeys in hope of a better life? Where do they live? How do they eat? On a free walking tour we learned that nearly 85% of Singapore’s 5 million residents live in government-subsidized housing projects (reports show that, despite being the most expensive city in the world, most Singaporeans suffer from a ridiculously low standard of living and some of the lowest wages in the developed world). Safe and relatively clean, these buildings are largely free of the problems that plague “the projects” that many of us westerners immediately associate with the term. Cramped, but safe. Then again, that should be expected in the “fine city” of Singapore where bubblegum is illegal and seemingly minor infractions of spitting, littering, or petty vandalism will earn you penalties ranging from S$500 to a caning. The immigration form completed upon arrival is stamped in very large red letters “Drug Traffickers Will be Sentenced to Death.” Singapore doesn’t mess around.

Kristin and I split up after lunch one day and, still wondering about where the people of below average income live in this city, I took the subway to the last stop shown on the tourist map, exited the station and walked off the map. It wasn’t long before I found the Singapore I was looking for. It was just a few miles out of view.

Yes, it does get hot here.

Yes, it does get hot here.

I was soon navigating through a crowded sidewalk, past all manner of hole-in-the-wall convenience stores, produce markets, and cheap eateries that wouldn’t have been out of place in Morocco. A man sitting on a blanket outside a pharmacy sold bubble-packs of unlabeled pharmaceuticals by the side of the curb. Blue and purple pills for all! A sign advertising frog porridge and chili bullfrog got my attention, but I kept walking, still full from my expensive (but delicious!) lunch. The streets are numbered and I made my way some twenty blocks through a crowded neighborhood, side-stepping the streaks of garbage juice on the sidewalk, bending around the scaffolding occupying much of the sidewalk, and pausing only to periodically buy another bottle of water. The heat is inescapable, adding unnecessary literalism to the melting pot metaphor so often used when describing Singapore.

I turned down the last of the numbered streets and saw a group of multi-colored umbrellas set up in the streets. They looked like hot dog carts from a distance, but were actually sidewalk barbers. Just enough shade for a customer to sit on a stool out in the street while getting his haircut. I got closer and a heavyset Indian woman sitting on a plastic crate grabbed my arm. “Special massage?” she asked while smiling a semi-toothless grin. No thank you. I snaked my way up and down the side-streets in a serpentine fashion and got solicited for a special massage several more times. The prostitutes got more attractive: thin, petite Malay, Thai and Chinese women in short skirts and snug tube-tops lined the sidewalk between cellphone repair shops and stir-fry counters. Another grabbed my arm and offered another quote-unquote massage. Upstairs, she mentioned, motioning to a narrow door and stairway into a nondescript building.

Just a small portion of the durians on display at this shop in the Geylang area of Singapore.

Just a small portion of the durians on display at this shop in the Geylang area of Singapore.

After giving some thought to these offers and thinking about where I was and the money in my wallet and the desire to live a life more exotic and adventurous and try new things, I did what I think most happily-married, disease-fearing men in my position would do. I looked around, saw something that caught my eye across the street, and after a short exchange of unpleasant haggling, sat down to enjoy my first durian.

The puzzling, smelly, slippery,  fruit of the durian.

The puzzling, slightly smelly, slippery, fruit of the durian.

The pit squirmed between my fingers as the pudding-like skin slid across the mushy fruit of this spiky notorious smelly fruit. The taste is indescribable. My first bite was interesting, but with each successive bite I knew that I would not eat all four pieces. The durian stand stretched for half a block and must have contained a thousand of these spiky tropical enigmas. One man spent his day cutting open the malodorous durians and scooping out the four fleshy pieces of yellow fruit tucked inside the inedible husk (fortunately, only the husk smells bad). Another worker packaged the fruit on a styrofoam tray, wrapped it in cling-wrap, and assigned a price. A third sat around waiting to collect the money. Packages ranged from S$2 to S$15, based on quality I was told, but they all looked identical to me.

Inside a friendly bar at Emerald Hill with an honest-to-goodness affordable Happy Hour special, extremely friendly staff, and free peanuts. What a find!

Inside a friendly bar at Emerald Hill with an honest-to-goodness affordable Happy Hour special, extremely friendly staff, and free peanuts. What a find! And no tiered pricing — many bars increase the price of their drinks as the night goes on.

I continued to wander the streets of this other Singapore, eventually making my way to a filthy bathroom at a metro station. Litter on the floor, vomit in the urinal, the rank smell of uric acid in the air; I smiled as it reminded me of New York City. Disgusting as it was, I was happy to spot it before crossing back onto the edge of the free tourist map handed out at the airport. One last example of the not-so-ideal before returning to the perfectly dull, neon-lit collection of mega-brands on Orchard Road.

The Marina Bay area of Singapore.

The Marina Bay area of Singapore.

The Singapore we visitors are directed to is squeaky clean, manicured, and sparkling. This fifty-year old city has made an improbable transformation in its short life as an independent nation. But I can’t help but see it as a soulless walking suit of steel and glass with an eye focused solely on profitable efficiency. Impressive to look at, but not very interesting. A Kardashian of world capitals; a shallow, superficial playground that strokes the vanities of the super-rich, the business traveler, and the easily impressed. And it is impressive. There’s no denying the beauty of the city’s architecture and parks. And it’s extremely efficient and safe. But it’s also painfully boring. Unlike the Lamborghinis and Ferraris rolling through its streets, Singapore never fully roars to life, throws your back against the seat, and makes you shriek with joy. It can’t. It’s a kit-car with high-gloss paint, a fancy logo, but very little under the hood.

Special Thanks: Continued monthly thanks go to Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc for their ongoing support of our journey.

Back on the Bikes: We’re heading back to Rome on June 23rd to reclaim our bicycles and touring gear and will be pedaling southeast out of the Eternal City on June 27th, bound for Brindisi and Greece. Finally, after six months of being off the bikes, we’ll be back underway and headed towards Turkey!

A Look Back at Bali: Our video slideshow of our time in Bali has been uploaded. You can view it on our Gallery page or by following this link. Enjoy!

18 November, 2014

Looking Back at Our Trip Across Europe

The thing about a trip like this is you don’t realize how far you’ve come until you’ve done something you once thought impossible. Then it hits you all at once. It was the case when we first sniffed the Atlantic Ocean in Maine and realized that, yes indeed, we did pedal our way across North America. And that same wonderful blend of surprise and pride surfaced again, sitting here in Tangier, after I finished putting the following map together.

Our route across western Europe. And by across, we really mean more or less to the southwest. Hmmm...

Our route across western Europe. And by across, we really mean more or less to the southwest. Hmmm…

It was a great three months, visiting seven countries for the first time (six for Kristin who had previously been to Scotland — we had both been to Germany previously) and, by and large, we had great weather most of the way (not counting Scotland, naturally). Anyway, our week off in Tangier has come to a close and we used the time to rest, tend to the bikes — for the second continent in a row, I suffered a broken spoke on the very last day of riding in Europe — and begin to acclimate to being in an Arab-speaking, Muslim nation for the first time in our lives. We’ll be spending the next month cycling to the edge of the Sahara and back, but before we start pedaling south it was time to take one last look back at our time in Europe.

Looking north to Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar. Africa and Europe are as little as 9 miles apart at the strait's narrowest segment.

Looking north to Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar. Africa and Europe are as little as 9 miles apart at the strait’s narrowest segment. The ferry from Tarifa to downtown Tangier takes less than an hour.

There’s the literal look back at Europe, from an overlook above the medina in Tangier, a short walk from the shop we’ve been buying our groceries. Now for a more stylistic recollection of our European travels… (and you can thank me for not using “Holiday Road” for the soundtrack, as much as I wanted to).


Best viewed at 720p (click the gear icon) in full-screen. May not be playable on mobile devices.

 

No Schengen, No Problem

A little over a year before our departure, I learned about a thing called the Schengen Zone and the “Schengen Visa.” The Schengen Zone comprises most of the European Union (with exceptions like the UK) and Americans are only allowed to travel within this zone 90 of every 180 consecutive days (it never comes up in conversation due to the miniscule vacation allowance given by US companies). My mind went into a panic upon learning about this, as there was no way we’d be able to bike from Denmark to southern Spain and then all the way along the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece, and out via the Turkish border, as our original plans entailed, in under 90 days. I spent a long night at the computer devouring all the information I could find on Schengen Visa issues for Americans and, specifically, the punishments for over-staying. There were no reported cases of jail-time for overstaying, so we figured we’d take a chance. My plan was thus:  The clock would start ticking upon our arrival in Denmark, so we needed to be out of Spain and into Morocco in under 90 days so that we still had room on the visa to get back in to Spain. We’d worry about getting an extension in Italy or Greece if possible, or hope to slip out of the Schengen Zone via Greece with a slap on the wrist.

It turns out all of my fretting was for naught, as we found a loophole in the Schengen process. The ferry we took from Harwich, UK to Esbjerg, DN had no border controls or immigration on the Denmark side. So, while we were scanned out of the UK (but not stamped out on our passports), we rode off the ferry and right into the streets of Esbjerg without every being stamped into the Schengen Zone, nor given a visa. I knew it was happening as we were in the queu leaving the ferry terminal and I couldn’t believe it. Not a minute later a cyclist also aboard the ferry turned around, knowing we were Americans from our talks aboard, turned and yelled, “You should have just gotten a Schengen Visa there!” Yes, we should have. But there was nobody to give us one.

Fast forward 2+ months to Tarifa, Spain. We hand over our passports, passports that contain a UK stamp and no indication of how we entered the Schengen Zone. Nothing is said, we’re scanned, waved through, and then we got our Moroccan stamp. We won’t be biking back along the Mediterranean after all, but still would have ended up going over the 90-in-180 policy. Instead, thanks to the lack of customs/immigration at Denmark’s ferry terminal, our arrival in Livorno, Italy should be our first official entry into Schengen Zone. We’ll see… Unfortunately, the ferry route we took across the North Sea was discontinued at the end of September (Denmark demanded cleaner, more environmentally-friendly, vessels and the ferry operator refused to upgrade his ships).

Website Updates

As was the case when we got to New Jersey, I also took this time to tally up the data and update our Countries Visited page with all of the route and expenses data for our time in Europe. As expected, we wrapped up the second leg quite a bit over our planned budget. We wound up having just as many days where we spent less than $20 USD as we had costing over $200 USD.  We decided to go ahead and splurge and not worry about the budget too much while in Europe, knowing that we’ll be able to pull it back in line the further east we travel, starting here in Morocco. And, besides, good food and drink and the atmosphere that accompanies it, is just too big a piece of travel to ignore. I’d say it’s a major reason why we’re here. There’s a time for eating ramen in the woods, and a time for a night on the town. We enjoy both in equal measure.

Anyway, there’s a lot more explaining some of the costs and road conditions and whatnot on the Countries Visited page. We hope it helps with some of your own travel planning/budgeting.

Special Thanks: Our merriment will continue thanks to the wonderful generosity of some of our friends back in Washington. It’s always a treat to get an email from friends back home, and I was both thrilled and blushing to see the Paypal notifications generated by Brian Crowley and Ellen Maude. I met Brian and Ellen back in 2005 when I first started mountain biking in Washington and, over the years, have spent many long hours slogging up mountains on our bikes together (and even more hours in my Honda Element on road-trips to British Columbia and Oregon). Some of my favorite memories on a mountain bike were had in their company and I only wish they, and all my other cycling friends in the Seattle area (and my brother Joe in Colorado, who first got me started mountain biking) could be rolling south across Morocco with us now. We miss you all!

Ellen and I, back in 2006, at the end of a 25 mile backcountry ride through the Chilcotin Mountains in British Columbia. We, along with two other friends, hired a float-plane and a guide to drop us off deep in the backcountry for an absolutely epic singletrack experience. It was one of my favorite days.

Ellen and I, back in 2005, at the end of a 25 mile backcountry ride through the Chilcotin Mountains in British Columbia. We, along with two other friends, hired a float-plane and a guide to drop us off deep in the backcountry for an absolutely epic singletrack experience. It was one of my favorite days.

1 October, 2014

Forget Portland

Mass-participation, organized bike rides aren’t for everyone, but their popularity can’t be ignored. The most famous — infamous? — typically have the prefix Trans- in their title or are commonly known simply by their alphabet-soup acronym. I’ve ridden a few of these some years ago. Rides like R.A.M.R.O.D., Trans-Rockies, and S.T.P. to name a few, the latter of which is a rather boring 204-mile single-day affair leading from Seattle to Portland. I did S.T.P. back in 2007, in preparation for larger challenges, and hadn’t really thought about it much since. That is, until Monday when Kristin and I were walking along the famed Champs Elysees towards the way-bigger-than-anticipated Arc de Triomph.

Forget Seattle-to-Portland, we just rode from Seattle to Paris. Now that’s a bike ride!

It really is a spectacle that should be seen. Kristin and I disagree on whether or not it's worth going to the top.

It really is a spectacle that should be seen. Kristin and I disagree on whether or not it’s worth going to the top.

There are certain moments in this trip that will live in my memory forever: Descending Shermann Pass in an ice storm; catching that first salty whiff of the Atlantic Ocean after crossing North America; and watching our homeland disappear as we sailed out of New York harbor, not knowing when we’d ever be back come immediately to mind. But I must add our first day in Paris to the list.

We crossed into France in the Champagne region, home to many tiny villages like this one.

We crossed into France in the Champagne region, home to many tiny villages like this one.

Sam heard us speaking English and called us over to his fence. He was in the French Air Force and served with some Americans and picked up some English. He was surprised to see us cycling through otherwise empty countryside and implored us to take as many apples as we wanted from his orchard.

Sam heard us speaking English and called us over to his fence. He was in the French Air Force and served with some Americans and picked up some English. He was surprised to see us cycling through otherwise empty countryside and implored us to take as many apples as we wanted from his orchard. He would have filled our panniers if we let him.

We were out the door by 9am for croissants and espresso, the pressé as they call it, and then a meandering stroll south from our Montmarte hotel past the opera house, around the interior courtyard of the Louvre — look at the queue! — and onto a lovely stroll through the gardens leading up to the Champs Elysees. We walked hand-in-hand, unencumbered by our bulging bicycles and gawked at the ornate palaces, museums, and the aforementioned arch known the world over. The beauty of the city’s architecture can be experienced in photos; the scale of these monuments cannot. They must be seen to be believed, and even then the mind struggles with the dimensions. That building wrapping around in a massive, squared-off semi-circle, the one that appears to house several city blocks under its roof, is all just a single art museum. Really? Yes. And it’s but one of dozens of grand palaces, museums, and hotels.

Gardens along the Champs Elysees have plenty of spots to relax.

Gardens along the Champs Elysees have plenty of spots to relax.

The day only got better from there. Sipping espressos on sidewalk-facing chairs, watching the world pass by (most of it staring zombie-like at a smartphone, but sexy as hell), gnawing on baguettes as we marched a zigzag pattern across the city from Sacre Couer to the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower and onward to Cathedral de Notre Dame. We ate, and drank, and ate and drank some more, pausing only for the numerous photos I like to take. We gawked at the fashion in the windows — and on the sidewalks — and gaped at the prices. Thousand-dollar dress shoes and five-figure watches will never make sense to me, but how about something more practical. Croissants better than I ever experienced back home could be had for a single Euro ($1.30 USD) but a grande drip coffee at Starbucks (they are everywhere in Paris), for comparison’s sake, runs $3.60 USD, about double the price back home. And the chalkboards boasting the plat du jour kept us moving right along, nothing to see there. We learned quickly to lunch the way the Parisiennes do, on the go with one of the abundant baguette-based sandwiches sold seemingly every 100 meters–a five dollar foot long better than anything from Subway.

Since it’s a scientific fact that all prolonged discussion about bicycle touring ultimately devolves to bathroom stories, here’s one from the front lines. My stomach was acting up in a major way and with no public toilets to be found on a relatively quiet, residential block, we ran into the lone brasserie we saw, only to find the WC (restroom) under lock and key: Clients Seulement S’il Vous Plaît. 

We watched a group of Parisiennes play this game called Molkke while we ate (restaurant in background) and then they taught us how to play. I won 2 of 3 games.

We watched a group of Parisiennes play this game called Molkke while we ate (restaurant in background) and then they taught us how to play. I won 2 of 3 games.

I did what any quick thinking hop-head would do in this situation. I hurried to the bar, scanned the taps, and ordered two large glasses of the Belgian tripel from La Chouffe. I had been meaning to try La Chouffe while in Belgium, but hadn’t seen it on tap until now. I then got the code for the bathroom and took care of my business without a moment to spare.

Relieved, I rejoined Kristin back at the bar, hoisted my 50cl (roughly pint-sized) goblet, and began to down an absolutely fantastic brew. The bartender, as skilled in English as I am in French pointed to the register. €7.60.  Not bad, I think to myself and toss down a ten-Euro note. He shakes his head, points twice, taps a button on the till, and the numbers double.

Gulp. I try to swallow my shock with some forced laughter and begrudgingly double the withdrawal from my wallet.

Studies have shown that people expressed greater enjoyment from wines they were led to believe were more expensive, even when the glasses were replaced with cheap table wines. I may have had the opposite reaction. The beer I was so enjoying moments earlier was starting to leave a sour taste in my mouth, even if only metaphorically. Buyer’s remorse had set in.

We were between elevators when the hourly strobe lights started going off.

We were between elevators when the hourly strobe lights started going off.

I carried my chagrin heavily onto the sidewalk as we left. I only had recently begun to appreciate the concept of paying fifty cents to use a public toilet, but my sudden stomach distress just cost us twenty bucks! Kristin suggested I was thinking through the situation wrong and that I should be glad that I didn’t have an even bigger embarrassment on my hands. “You’re right! I wouldn’t ever pay twenty bucks to use a toilet, but, if I hadn’t found one, and ended up crapping my pants, you better believe I’d pay twenty dollars to rewind time and undo the damage!”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

The Hall of Mirrors at the absurdly opulent Palace of Versailles.

The Hall of Mirrors at the absurdly opulent Palace of Versailles.

We roll out of Paris tomorrow morning, headed north to the D-Day Beaches along the Normandy coast and then south along the Atlantic to Bordeaux and the Spanish border where, in the Pyrenees, nature’s call will hopefully ring like a bear’s: while I’m in the woods.

Special Thanks: Huge thanks to Duane and Bryce for their contributions to our beer-fund. As you can see from the post above every dollar counts, especially under duress. We also want to extend our thanks to our WarmShowers hosts in Troyes, Laetitia and Arnaud, for welcoming us into their home and providing such a great first-impression of a French household. Also I personally want to thank our friends and family who reached out to wish me (Doug) a happy birthday this week. Our first holiday on the road couldn’t have come at a better time and your gifts all helped us enjoy it that much more.

27 May, 2014

Great Lakes, but Not-So-Great Roads

For the past two weeks, we have been cycling the shores of Lake Superior and Lake Huron on a portion of the Trans-Canada Highway from Thunder Bay to Sudbury, Ontario. We have been surrounded by beautiful scenery, even if the weather and road surface have been much less than perfect.

While the population along the Trans-Canada Highway is generally sparse, the number of Provincial Parks is not. There is generally a Provincial park every 50-60 kilometers (30-36 miles), whereas towns are not quite so frequent. Unfortunately, this didn’t help us much as many were closed, soaked with snowmelt, or charge up to $40 just to pitch a tent. We even spent 83 km (52 miles) cycling through Lake Superior Provincial Park. Beyond the Provincial Parks, there are many private campgrounds providing bathrooms, hot showers, and often laundry facilities. These amenities are nice, but it was a shock the first time we had to pay $30-40 to pitch a tent. That said, everything in Canada has cost 30-50% more than in the US even with the favorable exchange rate of $1.09 CAD per $1 USD. That was unexpected.

The Terry Fox Memorial honoring the inspiration and unity he gave to Canada. Despite the statue being about a man who attempted to run across Canada, there is no legal way to access the memorial by foot or bike. We had to break the law for a couple of km to see this.

The Terry Fox Memorial honoring the inspiration and unity he gave to Canada. Despite the statue being about a man who attempted to run across Canada, there is no legal way to access the memorial by foot or bike. We had to break the law for a couple of km to see this.

Another surprise, though this one pleasant, are the great waterfalls and boardwalks with railings leading to them. Some of these paths are over a mile long and all in great condition. The most beautiful waterfall was Aguasabon Gorge with plenty of remaining snow and ice creating a truly unique view.

Aguasabon Gorge is just a quick detour off highway 17 and was well worth the stop. Kristin particularly enjoyed the walkway.

Aguasabon Gorge is just a quick detour off highway 17 and was well worth the stop. Kristin particularly enjoyed the walkway.

Until a few weeks ago, when I thought about cycling the shores of a lake, I was expecting flat terrain. From Thunder Bay to Nipigon was fairly flat with just a few rollers; however, as we left Nipigon, we started riding above Lake Superior and climbed and descended most of the day. We had a few days of nearly 3000 feet of climbing. These were the biggest hills that we saw since the east slopes of Glacier National Park. Our climbing legs hadn’t been exercised in weeks, but suddenly we needed them again.

While we are now using our climbing legs again, we have yet to need our shorts yet. Doug mentioned in his last post, that I was convinced that we were chasing winter. My thoughts on the matter remain unchanged. On May 16th, we spent an extra night at the Rossport Inn in Rossport, ON, to allow a few inches of snow along our next day’s ride to pass. Unbelievable! That said, we really enjoyed our “day off” helping Ned, the owner, build a chicken tractor-coop (a mobile chicken coop that can be dragged to a new location as needed) and sharing stories with him and his brother, including the day Ned punched out Bob Seger for being obnoxious in his restaurant. Ned made us cocktails on both evenings we were there and even invited us to stay for a dinner party with some of his friends two days later. However, there was dry weather on the horizon, so we politely declined and continued on. Just a few days later, after the dry weather passed, we cycled through a thunderstorm, hail, and three torrential downpours, all in a single day. Finally on May 23rd, we got a full day of sun and temperatures in the middle 60s and the next day, temperatures reached the 70s. We were finally able to break out our cycling shorts for the first time since March 23rd when we departed Seattle. We think spring/summer is finally on its way!

We spent a day off at Rossport Inn and helped the owners build a tractor-coop for their chickens in exchange for some gin martinis.

We spent a day off at Rossport Inn and helped the owners build a tractor-coop for their chickens in exchange for some gin martinis.

As we approached Canada and in our early days in Canada we kept hearing that Route 17 (Trans-Canada Highway) has a narrow shoulder and the drivers were not very accommodating for cyclists. One gentleman went to the extent of saying he had lived in Thunder Bay his whole life and is ashamed that Route 17 remains as poor a cycling road as it is, especially after several cyclists have lost their lives on this road over the years. Well, all the warnings were appropriate as the road had a narrow paved shoulder, rarely more than a foot wide for most of the way and often as little as six inches. To the right of the shoulder was soft dirt. Most of the drivers moved over a few feet to give us a little extra space as they passed, but several large 18-wheelers chose not to or didn’t have that choice as traffic was coming towards them. Thank goodness we had our mirrors and could see these situations develop. We would yell “Ditch!” or “Truck!” and carefully move onto the soft shoulder, swerving around in the sandy soil waiting for the danger to pass. I had one spill in the dirt, but no damage to me or the bike, just a few bruises and additional frustration for the crappy road conditions on a route that many cyclists use every year to traverse Canada.

Thankful we're not riding roads with so little shoulder all the way across the continent.

Thankful we’re not riding roads with so little paved shoulder all the way across the continent.

Overall, we really enjoyed the scenery and we would highly recommend the northern shore of Lake Superior as a road trip (by car) for anyone looking for something a little off the beaten path, especially if you bring your own canoe and fishing tackle. There are gorgeous views and lots of hiking and picnic areas along the way as well as campgrounds accommodating tents or RVs and motels. We even saw a moose on our way into camp one night and a river otter in camp that same night, on the Magpie River. Definitely drive west to east (clockwise around the lake) for better views and wait for the middle of June or later in the summer to have a better chance for nicer weather. But bring your bug spray.

Doug grabbed this photo of a moose while biking to the campground outside of Wawa, ON.

Doug grabbed this photo of a moose while biking to the campground outside of Wawa, ON.

Rolling past some of the oldest rocks on earth. The Canadian Shield is comprised of rocks from 4.5 Billion years ago.

Rolling past some of the oldest rocks on earth. The Canadian Shield is comprised of rocks from 4.5 Billion years ago.

1 March, 2013

Only 13 More Months to Go!

I don’t care what the groundhog had to say, spring is almost here and with it comes a final twelve month countdown to our launch date. Writing the strategy guides for the new BioShock Infinite and Gears of War: Judgment games had me on the road for seven weeks over the winter so, in order to take advantage of my time at home, we’ve begun doing “trip stuff” a little bit each night. And we’ve made a lot of progress.

But before we get to our trip updates, here’s a video Q&A I recently did with my publisher’s Facebook followers about my work on Gears of War: Judgment.

The Tent: We were still on the fence about the Hilleberg Nallo GT3 we bought this past fall but we’re feeling much better about it after our recent bike overnight to Whidbey Island. We attacked the setup and tear down with rigid discipline and not only was it much easier to pitch, but it stayed taut and comfortable despite incredibly high onshore winds. It’s still really large and cumbersome and way more of a pain in the rump to pitch than our previous tents from Sierra Designs and Mountain Hardwear, but I do love it once it’s up.

Clothing: We’ve now purchased nearly all of our clothing. We’re still unsure if we’re bringing too much or too little, but it does feel pretty minimalistic. Kristin and I decided to go with larger 15L stuff-sacks and pack all of our off-the-bike clothes into one, all of our on-the-bike clothes into another and, along with some mesh ditty sacks for the really dirty laundry, will be fitting them all with our jackets and gloves and such into our two rear panniers. At least that’s the plan for now. Of our new purchases, I have to say that I’m thrilled with the Hincapie Tour LTX vest I bought to wear with my Ibex arm warmers on those chilly days. I also love the ExOfficio Trip’r shirt Kristin got me for Christmas.  Kristin really likes her merino wool Icebreaker Sprite Racerback sports bras and the Road Holland merino jersey I bought her. You can check out the full list of our clothing here.

Free Stuff: If you’re in the United States and planning a big trip, then you owe it to yourself to look into getting the REI credit card. I know this is a sensitive issue and we don’t want to encourage anything that might not be a good match, given everyone’s unique financial situation. But we put nearly all of our purchases last year on the card, making sure to pay it off each month, and are now anxiously awaiting over $500 in REI store credit next month. We’ll be getting Kristin’s Arc’Teryx softshell and our Tubus Tara front racks with the dividend, and will probably still have enough left over for two pairs of heavyweight Smartwool Mountaineer socks.

Wheels: I met with Larry at Perfect Wheels in Seattle two weeks ago to discuss the wheels we’d be using for our RTW tour. I showed up at his shop expecting to plunk down the plastic for a pair of wheels laced around Phil Wood hubs, but Larry subtly steered me towards the good old trusty Shimano XT hubs and nearly $400 savings per wheelset. So we’ll be going with 36-spoke Velocity Cliffhanger rims, double-butted DT Swiss spokes, bronze nipples, and Shimano XT 36-spoke disc hubs. Those Phil Wood hubs sure are nice, but we can’t act like money is no object and, as I mentioned to Larry, of all the years I’ve been biking, I’ve never once had a problem with an XT hub. My Chris King hubs, on the other hand, don’t get me started…

Made for the trails, strong enough for touring.

Made for the trails, strong enough for touring.

Electronics: I can’t begin to mention how thrilled I am that the long struggle and debate over electronics has ended (we hope). We’ve decided to not bring a GPS device and to also not bring an active mobile phone. We’ll bring my current Droid Razr for use purely as a wifi device but given the language barriers and the pain of swapping SIM cards every time we cross a border, taking along an unlocked GSM phone just doesn’t seem to be worth the hassle. Maybe we’ll change our minds and buy one locally, in Europe, but we’ll see. That said, we are going to bring a non-subscription-based personal locator beacon just in case an emergency strikes and one of us is suddenly left with an unresponsive spouse in the middle of nowhere. As for computers, I picked up a Dell XPS 13 ultrabook on sale (essentially a Windows 7 version of the Macbook Air) and Kristin is continuing to play with the various tablets that keep coming out — she’ll make her choice later this year. We’ll have our Kindles with us and will be bringing along a Canon G15 and waterproof Pentax Optio WG-3 for photos. Lastly, I’ve decided to stick with my Garmin Edge 305 non-mapping bike computer. I’ve been using it for 6 years now, love its accuracy for elevation and distance, and can download tracks to it from sites like GPSies for areas containing mazes of forest roads. So, in a way, we will sort of have a GPS with us, but only for very unique situations. I’ll be keeping the Edge and Razr topped off with an Anker Astro 8400 mAh USB battery.

The Great Unburdening: Kristin has turned into a maestro of Craigslist as it seems everyday I’m running over to meet someone at the nearby Starbucks to trade one of our seemingly countless possessions for a wad of cash. Just yesterday I managed to sell off our old Rock Band videogame  equipment and games. Power tools, comforters,  an old tent, and numerous other items also joined the mass exodus. We also met with our realtor the other day to discuss what needs to be done to get the house ready for sale later this fall. The new roof and hot water heater were expected expenses, but we were thrilled to hear houses are now selling fast enough in WA that we don’t need to upgrade the kitchen beyond a new sink and faucet. Hopefully the market continues to heat up, else we might owe a couple thousand to pay off the mortgage after closing costs are taken into account. At least we got to enjoy some of the equity we took out back in 2006, though I sure wish I could remember what we spent it on…

2 April, 2012

Two Years From Today…

It’s April 2nd, 2012 and if all things go according to hopes and plans, two years from today we’ll be heading northward past the town of  Darrington, WA on our way to the junction with the North Cascades Highway and the Northern Tier bicycle route. I must say that despite the lengthy amount of time before we depart, the excitement is already building. I suspect it’s this way for anyone planning such a monumental uprooting. Which brings me to why I’m writing this post. I want to make sure and seed our site with posts that point to the steps we took to prepare for the trip and, as with everything that will ultimately appear on TwoFarGone.com, to provide another data point of reference for those who will one day be where we are now: scouring the internet like mad for all the tips, advice, and information you can find. So, in that regard, here’s where we currently stand on a few things.

Savings
There’s nothing more important during the long waiting period than saving and so far so good. We’re past the halfway mark for our goal and several months ahead of schedule due to some good investments and are now socking away $700/month towards the trip. We continue to increase the monthly savings amount by $50 every six months.

Kristin and I are lucky in this regard that we haven’t had to make any sacrifices in order to save for the trip (very lucky considering Kristin was laid off in December, 2010). We combine for a relatively comfortable “household income” and don’t have very expensive tastes, except perhaps in bicycles. But going hand-in-hand with saving for the trip has been a full-frontal assault on all of our outstanding bills. Our mountain of credit card debt has been whittled to a molehill, the cars have been paid off for a couple years now, and we are soon to be debt-free outside of the mortgage for our house in WA, a minuscule mortgage on land we own in NC, and a lingering student loan. The latter two will be paid off this time next year.

Gearing Up
I built up our Salsa Fargos last winter and  though I do intend to swap out the butterfly “trekking” handlebar for a standard mountain bike flat-bar to give us a wider grip for rocky/technical tracks, they are otherwise tour-ready.  We enjoyed every moment of these bikes during our 10 day tour around the Olympic Peninsula last summer and anxiously await our next short trip.

Though we are two years away and are trying our best to not dwell on the trip too much, we have begun researching and buying gear in earnest. We’ve so far stuck to products that we either know will not change between now and 2014 and those we love and fear may be discontinued. Part of our reasoning for this was also to use our annual REI Dividend and the gift cards we’ve been receiving from family for holidays and birthdays. The pile of inspiration in the spare bedroom has been growing of late.

So far we’ve purchased Ortlieb front and rear panniers for each bike along with our sleeping systems (an unorthodox combination that I’ll explain in a separate post). We have a lot of gear already from our past trips, but I’ve also begun adding some clothing as I see things go on sale.

We’ve created a spreadsheet that is already taking the form of a packing list, though it’s really a way for us to track the things we’ve bought, what we still need, and the recommendations and what our top choices are for certain topics (detailed gear lists will be updated on this site). We read a lot of bike touring blogs and have studied more than a few people’s gear lists over the past couple years and have finally begun tracking the products that we want to get. This way we can purchase it gradually over time. This nets us two benefits: 1) We don’t suddenly have to dip into our trip savings just as we stop working, and 2) We’re not running around trying to research/acquire gear while also trying to sell our house and all of its contents.

Hair Removal
Kristin is in the process of writing a separate post about this, but she’ll be going in for her third of six scheduled sessions for laser hair removal this week. This was a costly expense, but one I was not about to say no to. I know some women would rather let their leg hair grow out and that some guys don’t mind their wives or girlfriends going a few days or weeks without shaving. Not us. Actually, Kristin was probably going to eventually do this anyway. I guess the trip just provided the necessary motivation. For those considering this, do note that it cost more than the total cost of my Fargo including racks and panniers.

Snow Route
Earlier I mentioned that we hope to be crossing WA via the Northern Tier in early April. For those who aren’t familiar with Washington State geography and highway closures, the North Cascades Highway (Hwy 20) closes every November due to avalanche and re-opens sometime that following spring. There are essentially four major routes through the Cascade Mountains in WA and Hwy 20 is not only the most scenic, but the one we prefer by a wide margin not only for its beauty but it also passes the town of Winthrop in the Methow Valley, one of my all-time favorite places in the Pacific Northwest. The highway didn’t open until May 25th last year, its second-latest opening ever. This year it is expected to open the first week of May. As of late March, it still had snowdrifts 50 to 60 feet deep in some of the avalanche zones and the road surface at Washington Pass was under 9 feet of snow.

Heading west from Early Winters

If our hoping to ride this route in early April sounds like wishful thinking, it is! But it’s not without precedent. Here’s just a few of the highway opening dates I’m hanging my cycling helmet on: April 16th, 2010; March 10th, 2005; April 8th, 2004; April 14th, 2003; March 22nd, 2001; and March 30th, 2000 (source). Oh, and the road never closed during the winter of 1976-77 so we can always hope for a repeat. The two words we don’t want to hear are “La Nina” as the La Nina winters (like 2011 and 2012) are responsible for the immense snowfalls.

It’s worth noting that Hwy 20 is only closed to cars. As long as you stay clear of the road crews while they are removing the snow, you are otherwise allowed to be up there on foot, bike, or ski. So there’s always the possibility that we time our crossing with the last remaining days of the snow-removal process and make it down the east side before the road opens to cars. More than likely though, we’ll either luck into an early opening or have to take the route over Stevens Pass (Hwy 2), Snoqualmie Pass (I-90), or cross much further south, perhaps in Oregon or on Highway 12 through Washington.

The one thing we don’t want to do is wait around until late May to start. We’re waiting long enough as it is..