Tag Archives: Morocco
18 June, 2015

Top 10 Questions We Get Asked

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

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

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

1: What was your favorite day on the bike?

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

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

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass.

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

2: What was your favorite day off the bike?

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

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

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

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

3: What was the biggest dose of culture shock?

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

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

4: List your Top 3 favorite food memories!

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

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

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

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

5: What cultural observation surprised you the most?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can get used to this.

Nightlife in Pamplona.

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

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

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

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

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

9: What were your favorite obvious tourist attractions?

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

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

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

10: What was your most embarrassing moment?

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

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

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

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

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

13 December, 2014

Escape from Morocco

Our time in Morocco has come to an end and, beautiful photos and a few choice memories aside, I coudn’t be happier. And it’s disappointing to say that, as Morocco was one of the three countries I always listed when asked where I was most excited to go (Scotland and New Zealand were the other two). We knew going in that there would be some petty annoyances — touts, loose dogs, and begging children, to name a few — but there was something far more insidious lurking in the background, ultimately making it very difficult to relax and enjoy oneself. And it was never more evident than during our ten day stay in Merzouga, at the end of the road in eastern Morocco. The hotel, a recommendation from another cyclist and reader of this blog, was comfortable enough. The food ranged from adequate to superb, depending on the night. All in all, money well spent. I’ll spare you the gory details, but just know that nobody — absolutely nobody working in Moroccan tourism — can be trusted. Those who get a beer or two in me and are up for a long-winded rant about a hotel trying to cancel our taxi and a tour guide trying to bait us into leaving bad reviews to bolster their friend’s business can hear the full story in person.

Our bikes were strapped to the roof of a 1984 Mercedes taxi for a 12 hour drive from Merzouga to Tangier.

Our bikes were strapped to the roof of a 1984 Mercedes taxi for a 12 hour drive from Merzouga to Tangier.

But let’s keep things positive. Here’s the slideshow I put together before leaving Morocco. The memories of the scenery, some of the people we met, and of our camel trek and the food will certainly shine brighter in my memory years from now, once distance puts the annoyances and frustrations firmly out of view.


Not wanting to pedal back the way we came, we opted to spend an extra week in Merzouga and hire a taxi to drive us 12 hours back to Tangier on December 7th, leaving us a day to head back into Tangier (surprisingly enough, a town we preferred over Fes) for a haircut and one last meal at Ray Charley’s on the Petite Socco.  Then, the next morning, we pedaled the 20 miles to Tangier Mediterranean Port for, what would be, a 53 hour ferry ride to Livorno, Italy.

We set sail on the Ikarus Palace across the length of the Mediterranean. Krstin was thrilled to see a circus board the ship with us, including a trailer marked "live animals."

We set sail on the Ikarus Palace across the length of the Mediterranean. Kristin was thrilled to see a circus board the ship with us, including a trailer marked “live animals.”

If you’re curious what being on a ferry for over 2 days is like, here’s an in-depth summary of the many ways you can pass the time: Sleeping, reading, playing cards, and eating. That’s it. There’s nothing else to do. So, yeah, it’s kind of like a cruise, minus the really cheesy stage acts. We opted to get a cabin and pre-paid three meals a day, which turned out to be a great bargain. And it was nice to not have to worry about our bags when we’d get up to walk around, though many of the people on board, particularly Moroccans, just slept out in the open in the hallways and lounges. The only downside was we didn’t get to Livorno until well past 11pm, forcing a very cold, dark 4 mile ride to our hotel around midnight. We carried headlights for 9 months and never needed them. Until that night. Better safe than sorry; bring your lights!

Our cabin aboard the Ikarus Palace.

Our cabin aboard the Ikarus Palace.

I spent some of the next day updating the Countries Visited page with route and expense information for Morocco, as well as a bit more commentary on some of the things we liked and didn’t like about the country. I suspect anyone who visits the country as part of an all-inclusive tour will be shielded from many of the annoyances we faced, but those of you out there travelling independently should know to stay on guard. The people in the countryside are wonderful. The professionals you meet in the cities are similarly likeable and trustworthy, but many of the rest of the people you deal with will try to treat you as if you are a money-filled pinata. And they will try to get themselves and their friends as many swings at you as possible.

We met Alessandro in line for the ferry, as he was finishing up a motorcycle tour of Morocco and headed back to his homeland. We ended up meeting up for a few meals so we could hit him up for travel advice and he got to practice his English. I told him my grandmother was from Italy. He replied by telling me his family lived in Pisa for a thousand years. So it's kind of the same thing, right?

We met Alessandro in line for the ferry, as he was finishing up a motorcycle tour of Morocco and headed back to his homeland. We ended up sharing a few meals (and an espresso or two) during the crossing and we hit him up for travel advice and he got to practice his English. I told him my grandmother’s family was from Italy. He replied by telling me his family lived in Pisa for a thousand years. So it’s kind of the same thing, right?

We’re currently in Lucca, Italy in the midst of a loop through northern Tuscany, en route to Florence (Firenzi) and Siena, then southward through Tuscany and Umbria to Rome in time for Christmas. Look for an Italian post in the next week or so. Ciao!

Sunset over the Mediterranean. Spain to the right, Algeria to the left.

Sunset over the Mediterranean. Spain to the right, Algeria to the left.

 

25 November, 2014

Rolling with the Culture in Morocco

As we crested the last hill in Spain and began our descent into Tarifa to catch the ferry to Tangier, Doug asked me how I was feeling about finally going to Morocco. I had to admit, I was a little anxious about being in our first Muslim country. I read many cycling blogs and travel blogs in our waning days in Spain about what to expect as a western woman in Morocco. The information varied quite a bit depending on how old the information was, the location, and whether the woman was alone or with a man. I had no concerns for my safety, but was more curious about bike attire and what to expect from the locals as I walked and cycled through towns. Would I have to endure endless cat-calls or wonder if I would be slapped on the rear end as I rode through traffic or was all this worrying for naught? The next several days answered all these questions and more.

Kristin and Abdrazak's wife and daughters (we're not sure how many were his).

Kristin and the family of a local man who not only showed us a safe place to camp in a nearby field, but brought us tea and dinner. He then returned in the morning to invite us to his house for breakfast.

For clothing, I wanted to respect the culture without going overboard, so I dressed relatively conservatively both on and off the bike. Off the bike was easy. I wore long pants, long sleeved shirts, and no headscarf, as most of the information I read said that western women stood out more with a headscarf than without. However, I found much less information on cycling attire. We would be heading into 70 and 80 degree weather and just the thought of those tights that I wore during frigid, snowy days in Montana nearly gave me heat stroke (especially since I’d have to wear something baggy over the tights for modesty). I knew I could buy a lightweight pair of pants, but was hoping to avoid adding more to my load. I decided to wear the lightweight, loose-fitting, capri cycling pants and my cycling socks pulled up instead of pushed down as I normally wore them. This left only four or so inches of calf exposed. I thought this was reasonable. My cycling jerseys and arm warmers served to cover my arms and while I was a bit warm in the sun, I was glad to have them on in the shade and during our longer descents.

The Tangier medina, viewed from the rooftop terrace of where we stayed. Also apparently the scene of a great chase scene in "The Bourne Ultimatum"

The Tangier medina, viewed from the rooftop terrace of where we stayed. Also apparently the scene of a great chase scene in “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

So what happened? The short story is mostly respect and friendly faces. No cat-calls, no slapping, no strange looks… OK, well some of those, but that had more to do with people thinking we were a bit crazy to be cycling up these mountains on our fully loaded bicycles. We’d seen that look from many people throughout our trip. For the long story, keep reading.

Walking around Tangier and Fes I was always with Doug; however, this was out of convenience, not because of concern for personal safety. I’m sure it helped that Doug is six feet tall with broad shoulders, but I am confident that I could have walked alone without any problems. However, given my poor sense of direction, going wandering about as I did in Paris would have me pulling out a map far too often. I would end up having to fend off the very friendly locals offering to help me find where I was going and then needing to offer a tip after delivering me to my destination. As a side note, these folks were far more persistent in the medinas of Fes than those in Tangier. This could be because we saw many more independent travelers in Fes. In Tangier, we mostly saw herds of tour groups from cruise ships, not very many individuals for these helpers to target. Also, Doug and I try to look like we know where we are going (Note: Doug usually does and I just try to mimic that) and walk pretty quickly. So, we are rarely bothered in the cities, but while cycling on rural roads, we did encounter a few groups of older teenage boys whose intent we weren’t sure about. They were often sitting on walls or guard rails and shouting to us in Arabic and we have no idea whether it was friendly, encouraging, or negative. That said, this activity is certainly not unique to Morocco. Boys will be boys and this can probably be seen in every country all over the globe. On the other hand, for every one group of questionable teens there were nearly a hundred drivers who honked and gave us a thumbs-up or a fist pump as they drove by. Many other men, of all ages, would smile and say, “Bonjour, madame” as I rode by, often far behind Doug (though he assures me he’s always watching in his mirror). This started in Tangier and continued on our 190-mile ride to Fes. This encouragement gave us a little extra strength to keep us pedaling up the mountains.

Women in the Tangier medina, near the kasbah. The women in Tangier were, for the most part, far more conservatively dressed than those in Fes.

Women in the Tangier medina, near the kasbah. The women in Tangier were, for the most part, far more conservatively dressed than those in Fes.

After spending a week in Tangier, a few days in Fes, and cycling through many small towns in between, we observed that as we traveled south, women’s dress was less strict and interactions between men and women in public were more common. In Tangier, nearly every non-western woman was wearing a headscarf. Men did not acknowledge women as they walked past and they never touched in public. We had an interesting example of this one night while we were sitting on bar stools having dinner at a small food stand. A gentleman seated in the corner accidentally brushed my arm as he was leaving. I barely felt it but moved a bit to give him room to get out. He apologized profusely to me and more so to Doug. In the US, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it; however, in Tangier it is very inappropriate for a man to touch a woman in public, especially someone’s wife. No harm done, but in hindsight, we realized that we were making an already cramped eating situation for this gentleman worse, not better, as we intended when seating the smaller of us on the stool closest to him. Lesson learned.

Women headed to the olive groves. They use the long sticks to beat the olives off the trees. While some have tarps to collect the olives, many rely on the back-breaking process of picking them up individually.

Women headed to the olive groves. They use the long sticks to beat the olives off the trees. While some have tarps to collect the olives, many rely on the back-breaking process of picking them up individually.

As we traveled south and in Fes, we saw a few local women without headscarves, though still the vast majority were wearing them. We also gradually started seeing interactions between men and women in public. In the very rural areas, we passed miles and miles of olive groves and this is harvest season. Most of the pickers were women and children, but a few of the men that weren’t already busy plowing and replanting fields were helping pick olives. Then, in a small town about 30 miles outside Fes, we met a gentleman who let us stay in his farm field for the night. He brought us dinner, stayed to talk with us while we ate, and upon saying goodbye, gave me the traditional greeting of kisses on the cheeks. That caught me completely off guard. And in Fes, we were eating at a food stand similar to the one in Tangier and watched three teenage girls, none wearing a headscarf, flirting with the twenty something gentleman making the sandwiches. This scene could have taken place anywhere and made Doug reminisce about his summers in college working the cheesesteak stand on Point Pleasant boardwalk in New Jersey and the flirtatious, bikini-clad teenagers waiting for sandwiches. It was hard to believe we were less than 180 miles south of Tangier.

So, in summary, my fears were unfounded and I have been pleasantly surprised around every switchback… and there were many.

Kristin drew a lot of attention and excitement from the women coming back from the market.

Kristin drew a lot of attention and excitement from the women coming back from the market as we weaved between their donkey caravans.

Descending into the next valley after another night camped hidden in the trees, off the side of the road.

Descending into the next valley after another night camped hidden in the trees, off the side of the road.

 

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).


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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.

13 November, 2014

DIY: Eliminating the Need for Ortlieb Rack Spacer Clips

The Problem: There’s a lot of information and recommendations available to the beginner bicycle tourist, but some things have to be learned through experience. One of those things that nobody tells you is that saddle sores get really itchy after you take some time off the bikes. Another is that there is a major defect in the mounting system for the ever-popular Ortlieb panniers. Oh, the bags themselves are great. But, when paired with the equally popular Tubus racks, Ortlieb’s quick-release system (QL2) on the panniers requires the use of flimsy, poorly-constructed, spacer clips to accommodate the narrow diameter of the Tubus racks. The clips work well for a while, but take those bags on and off the racks every day for months at a time and you’ll soon be dealing with all sorts of problems. The clips’ little prongs bend, snap off, and jam up the quick-release system. That’s when they don’t just fall off completely and disappear. Ortlieb appears to have replaced this mounting system on newer bags, as of 2011, but our bags were bought in 2012 and still had the older system.

Four of the sixteen bent, broken, and missing clips needed to secure our Ortlieb panniers to our Tubus racks.

Four of the sixteen bent, broken, and missing clips needed to secure our Ortlieb panniers to our Tubus racks.

An Idea: After seven months of dealing with this increasing annoyance, I finally decided to put my time off in Tangier, Morocco to good use and have come up with a remedy. By no means is this a sophisticated, clever, or sexy solution. It’s actually rather obvious. The point of this post is to show that common materials can be easily obtained and put to use in keeping your tour going smoothly, even when language and culture seem alien. After briefly considering ordering replacement clips, at tremendous shipping expense, and wondering if they’d even arrive while we were here, I decided to eliminate the need for the clips entirely by making the rails thicker.

The clips make it possible to accommodate various size rack diameters, but can't hold up to the rigors of long-term touring.

The clips make it possible to accommodate various size rack diameters, but can’t hold up to the rigors of long-term touring.

A Solution: I went off into the medina in search of hardware shops and, well, they’re not quite what we’re used to. For starters, most of the shops in the medina are merely a counter. The merchant might have hundreds of items in stock, but you need to ask for the specifics; there’s no browsing here. Fortunately, I found a shop with spools of clear, flexible tubing on the counter. I ordered two meters of 10mm diameter tubing, nearly exhausting my knowledge of French in the process, figuring the plastic tubing would be easy to cut and work around the rail. I then switched to charades in hopes of securing a number of zip ties. Fortunately, the words “zip ties” are better understood than my pantomiming and he quickly pulled out an assortment of zip ties in various colors and sizes. Two meters of 10mm plastic tubing and 20 large zip ties cost 21 Dirham ($2.37 USD). I’d have to return for more tubing, but more about that later.

Because it’s the Internet and someone will undoubtedly reprimand me for “needing zip ties,” let it be clear that I carry a number of zip-ties in my repair kit, but didn’t want to use up my supply if I could buy more cheaply while I was at the shop. The same goes for the tape.

Basic hardware materials like zip ties, tubing, and tape can be purchased anywhere. Even thousands of miles from the nearest Home Depot.

Basic hardware materials like zip ties, tubing, and tape can be purchased anywhere. Even thousands of miles from the nearest Home Depot.

Materials/Tools Needed

  • 10mm clear plastic tubing (2 meters per bike)
  • Zip Ties (8 per bike)
  • Heavy-duty tape
  • Utility Knife
  • Snips

Step #1: Cut the Tubing
Grab your panniers to know exactly where your mounting clips grab the rack and eye up a length of tubing wide enough to cover that portion of the rail. I decided to effectively cover the entire width of the rail so that I didn’t have to deal with any shifting tubes or edges catching. I then carefully sliced the tube lengthwise and wrapped it around the rail.

Step #2: Check the Fit
If using the Tubus Logo Evo rack, like we are, you’ll need to use two pieces of tubing, stacked on top of each other to build up the rail to the appropriate thickness. Remove the spacer clips from your pannier and give it a try. Ideally I would have had a second diameter of tubing, 12mm would likely have worked really well, but I doubled-up the 10mm with satisfactory results. Install your bag to make sure the bag will lock on nice and snug without the spacers.

Two pieces of tubing, zip-tied onto the rack (or taped on a shorter segment) will eliminate the need for the spacer clips.

Two pieces of tubing, zip-tied onto the rack (or taped on a shorter segment) will eliminate the need for the spacer clips.

Step #3: Secure the Tubing
I used two zip ties for each rail, on pieces that were more than an inch long. Make sure to place the zip ties as close to the ends of the tubing as you can, without being in the way of where the bag will mount onto the rail. The pannier’s mounting system is completely adjustable and you could choose to slide the clips to a new position. I didn’t do this for two reasons: 1) I’m notoriously lazy, and 2) I find the bags to be more secure on the racks if the mounting clips are as wide apart as possible.

Our rear bags (and Kristin’s front bags) mount further back on the racks and a second section of tubing was needed to fit the short extension of the back beyond the vertical rails on the rack. For this, rather than use up more zip ties and risk them being in the way of the bag’s clips, I just wrapped heavy-duty tape around the tubing to hold it in place. Snip the ends off the zip ties, mount your bags, and toss those bent, disfigured spacer clips in the trash!

Bonus Fix! Planet Bike Cascadia Fender Supports
The very first thing to break on our bike, just a few weeks into the tour, was the metal L-shaped clips that support the rear fender on each of our bikes. We’re using the Planet Bike Cascadia 29er fenders and, all things considered, they work as intended. But the metal frame that holds the fender in place beyond the wheel is affixed using a very thin piece of metal that snapped on 3 of 4 posts in the rear (between the two bikes). We used a number of rubber-bands over the past 7 months to pinch the rails together to hold the fender in place, but rubber bands always dry out and rot within a few weeks. While I had the tape out for the other project, I decided to replace the rubber bands with a lengthy piece of tape. The fenders aren’t under a lot of stress and if rubber bands intended for produce were able to work for a few weeks, the tape should hold for months at a time.

The metal extension that holds the fender in place snapped off at the clip within a couple of weeks. Make a tape sandwich to keep it working!

The metal extension that holds the fender in place snapped off at the clip within a couple of weeks. Make a tape sandwich to keep it working!