Tag Archives: Transit
10 December, 2015

Day 628: Flying Home

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

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

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

Our home away from home is Bali. Pinch me.

Kristin cutting a papaya in our outdoor kitchen in Bali.

Kristin cutting a papaya in our outdoor kitchen in Bali.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brain Freeze!

Brain Freeze!

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

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

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

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

Where was I?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

One final photo from our final night abroad.

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

11 November, 2015

The Next Adventure

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

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

We just didn’t realize how soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That beautiful Seattle skyline. Photo by Larry Gorlin.

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

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

Ready for the journey home to Washington State.

Ready for the journey home to Washington State.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Seuss

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

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

3 November, 2015

India Time in Sri Lanka

We saw the new high-rise buildings of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, hours before we reached land. And it would be hours still before we saw them from the city streets. Our first encounter with Sri Lanka, like those of many who visit neighboring India, was one spent waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Though we reached the dock at 2:30 p.m. and, along with the two other passengers, were ready to disembark, the officials from immigration didn’t arrive until 5:00 p.m. They drove us to the port’s immigration office and disappeared with our passports, leaving us in the passenger van, the sliding door left open to better feel the humidity and heat, I suppose. Several small bugs made their way inside, the first we had seen in over two weeks at sea, and a rather large rat hobbled across the edge of the wharf, injured, and disappeared down a drain. Thirty minutes later, the man returned with our passports, only for his colleague to realize a mile down the road that we were checked into the country as members of the ship’s crew, not as passengers. We had to turn around. Another twenty minutes were spent waiting for the proper entry stamp. No one asked to see the electronic visa confirmation we were told to purchase for $30 USD each; nobody looked for the banking statements Kristin underwent tongue-twisting gymnastics to get a hotel clerk to print for us. No forms were necessary. Immigration personnel didn’t even bother to match our faces with our passports.

Entering the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Entering the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Our minders from the shipping company, two drivers upon whose reliance wasn’t an option, asked where we wanted to go. “Someplace we could walk around and see the city, a restaurant and maybe some temples or shops. Mostly just a restaurant,” I said thinking a market or a downtown core. The older passengers with us made it clear they were going to stick to our side; that I was to lead us, whether I wanted to or not was of no concern to them. It was already past 6:00 p.m. and we had gotten used to eating our dinner at 5:30 aboard the ship. Also, I’m of the belief that a meal in a local restaurant is arguably the best way to experience a new location when pressed for time after dark. We’d have more time for sightseeing come morning.

Leaving the port of Colombo for the booming city proper, where in just five short years a who’s who of multi-national hotels and boutiques have sprung up, one has to pass through a checkpoint into the commercial High Security Zone. Armed security guards in military outfits manned the checkpoint, presumably to inspect vehicles for terrorist threats – the fear of another clash with the Hindu minority Tamil Tigers has diminished, but remains a possibility. These security guards, in reality, serve another purpose: to collect baksheesh. The guard only need approach the door to the rear passenger compartment for a flash of cash to suddenly find his hand. I feel so safe. The bribes were handed out by our minders, both coming and going, as we passed the checkpoint.

Colombo Harbor surroundings.

Colombo Harbor surroundings, outside the Immigration Office.

We were asked if we wanted to eat in a hotel, “perhaps the Ramada?” No, definitely not, we explained. Someplace you would go. No western food. Sri Lankan food. “Take us where you would take your wife for her birthday,” I said, a line that has landed us great recommendations in other countries. The two men conversed in the local language, Sinhala, then turned and said that they had the perfect place in mind. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves deposited outside a small three-story shopping mall, with the instructions to head down the stairs to the food court. “Very good Sri Lankan food. But, if you no like, they have everything.” They’d be back to pick us up in two hours.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

Our one night in Sri Lanka and with little choice in the matter, we got summarily dumped at a God-forsaken shopping mall. Even now, the morning after, I am straining to express our anger in PG terms, just in case my cousin’s children still read these posts in their geography class.

School kids lining up to go home in Sri Lanka.

School kids lining up for a tour in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A shopping mall, really? Simmering with frustration, we descend the escalator and find a food court that wouldn’t be out of place in New Jersey, only with slightly more ethnic offerings: the “Tennessee Fried Chicken” being to Sri Lankans what the equally dubious “Panda Express” is to us in the States. We approached the Sri Lankan restaurant, pointed at one of the display combinations, and were, before we knew it, searching for an empty table encumbered by heaping plates of spicy chicken, yellow rice, roti, and a number of vegetable dishes. The meal was tasty, quite so in fact, and we were given a 10% discount for using a credit card, a promotion especially appealing to those of us with no local currency (two dinners and two bottles of water cost roughly $8 USD). Nevertheless, the meal didn’t suppress my frustration over an opportunity lost/stolen.

Kristin and I spent the next hour pacing the shopping mall as closing time neared. A bookstore occupied our attention for a little while, but the clerk was preparing to leave. We passed Reebok and Adidas shops, an electronics store dedicated to the JBL/Harman-Kardon brands, numerous clothing and jewelry stores, and finally whiled away fifteen minutes pretending to be shopping for shoes in a Clark boutique.

We eventually found a café outside the mall and decided to kill off the remaining hour over dessert and tea. After all, we were in former Ceylon, one of the largest producers of tea in the world, second only to China (Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972, twenty-four years after shedding their colonial status, but plenty of signage still uses the exotic-sounding Ceylon in its messaging).

Sunset from Colombo Port.

At least we got to view a pretty sunset while waiting. And waiting.

There, in a trying-too-hard café called “Sugar”, with a veritable Benetton cast of ethnicities seated among the other tables, and with royalty-free electro-chill music playing at an inoffensive volume, Kristin and I came to realize why our minders deposited us at a shopping mall: It’s what they thought we’d want… because it’s what they’ve wanted their entire lives.

This mall could have been anywhere in the world. For us, this was a huge disappointment. We’ve ceased visiting shopping malls in this form many years ago except when absolutely necessary. Malls like this are dying off throughout America and are rarer still in Europe, but the rising middle class of the developing nations have only just begun to get a taste of them. I couldn’t help but feel that the Sri Lanka of the very near future, at least here in this sparkling-new portion of Colombo, was like the United States of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This is the challenge of travel in the 21st century; it is so much harder to find yourself in the unfamiliar. As globalization and technology combine to create a middle class in countries that have previously not had one, they get whitewashed with a Western-branded sameness. It is why smart travelers talk about hurrying to Cuba before it’s too late. They fear that the lifted embargo means it’s only a matter of months, not years, before Havana boasts the same neon-lit fast food brands and hotels as every-town America. Of course, we can’t fault the locals for wanting the very conveniences we go on holiday to escape. We seek destinations without them not because we are so enlightened, but because we can rely on them being there for us when we return home. We travel to see another way of life, not a reflection of our own.

Nevertheless, trying to explain to locals that we didn’t bicycle halfway around the world for a Bloomin’ Onion is often met with incredulity.

We asked our friendly Sri Lankan waiter where we should go, given that we have less than twenty-four hours in port. He replied with a list of touristy destinations that Kristin and I had already vetoed during a cursory glance at Trip Advisor: elephant parks, museums, and more shopping malls. Alas, we settled on a temple, the oldest and biggest Buddhist temple in Colombo. It opened at 9am. We thanked him and hurried to meet our drivers. Foolishly, I must add.

The gantry cranes are up and the tugs in place... time to head back to sea.

The gantry cranes are up and the tugs in place… time to head back to sea.  But first, a phone call.

Our two hours was ultimately over, only it wasn’t. We had to wait another thirty minutes before our drivers finally arrived to pick us up. No apology given, or really expected, as we came to understand very quickly that Sri Lanka runs on India Time, which is to say punctuality left with the British, to the extent that it ever existed. We chatted about Sri Lanka’s history during the drive back to our ship. There was another bribe given at the checkpoint, a brief exchange at the gate to the port, and then a meandering route through the container yard to the gangway. They’d pick us back up at 9:30 a.m. for a trip to Gangoramal Temple, to Independence Square, and to a traditional market so we could get some tea. Perfect.

Come morning, the four of us waited atop the gangway until 10:15 before finally giving up and going back to our cabins. It was no use. Shore leave was over at noon and the ship waits for nobody except the Captain himself. On a cargo ship, your time is not really your time. At least not when it comes to port calls. The Captain and the shipping agents will do their best to get you some time on shore, but no guarantees are made.

We went to the Ship’s Office to report that the four of us were all on board, surprising the Captain with our presence. He thought we were taken on shore nearly an hour earlier. Kristin explained that we had been stood-up, to which he just shook his head with annoyance and muttered, “That’s Sri Lankan Indians, for you.”

Postscript

The above text was written in a one-hour flash of fury following our being blown off by the Sri Lankan officials who were supposed to have driven us into town, or at least from the ship to the port’s gate (a one-mile gauntlet of trucks, containers, and cranes that we were forbidden from traversing on foot). It is now five hours later and, judging by the sound of the engine and the sight of the brontosaurus-like gantry cranes whose necks have been hoisted into their upright, resting position, the ship was ready to leave well over an hour ago.

That is when the very same official who stood us up this morning arrived on the ship to demand that we four passengers return to the Immigration Office in town to complete the Arrivals Declarations forms that we should have filled out yesterday. The ones I had asked about last night. So we did get to go back ashore, four hours after shore leave had ended. There, moments before our departure, we were finally handed the forms needed to legally enter the country. From conversation later, over dinner, we learned that we each checked different answers on some of the questions, such as the purpose of the trip and our embarkation port. It made no difference. They didn’t even look at the forms; it was just an exercise in bureaucratic time-wasting.

Sri Lanka… maybe another time. Probably not.

2 November, 2015

Cargo Cruising the Indian Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

Problem.

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

The view outside our cabin in Piraeus, Greece.

The view outside our cabin in Piraeus, Greece.

Life On Board

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

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

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

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

Our bedroom and bathroom in our cabin.

Our bedroom and bathroom in our cabin.

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

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

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

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

The captain gave us a tour of the Bridge.

The captain gave us a tour of the Bridge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirate Concerns Linger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calm Seas, A Typhoon Gives Chase

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

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

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

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

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

Port Calls

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

Ferries crossing behind our ship in Suez.

Ferries crossing behind our ship in Suez.

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

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

Booking a Cargo Cruise

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 October, 2015

Turkish Overload

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

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

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

Heading west out of Capadocia.

Heading west out of Capadocia.

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

Into the mountains of western Turkey. Gorgeous river valley.

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

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

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

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

Near the Galata Bridge and spice market in Istanbul.

Near the Galata Bridge and spice market in Istanbul.

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

Crowds gather throughout the day except during prayer service.

Crowds gather throughout the day except during prayer service.

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Mosque at night with colorful fountain.

Blue Mosque at night with colorful fountain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 August, 2015

The Aegean by Bike and Boat

“You should probably wipe the donkey poop off your neck before we get on the boat.” Kristin rolled her eyes in disgust, splashed some water on her hand, and proceeded to scrub. And after I helpfully pointed out a few brown specks she had missed, she got the last of it off. I don’t share this moment to embarrass her nor to increase our share of traffic from the routine Googlers of the phrase woman ride donkey (welcome, you sick bastards), but as a segue into telling you how I got some donkey poop in my mouth. And, if you visit the Greek isle of Santorini, you might too.

Gorgeous views of the town of Thira in Santorini.

Gorgeous views of the town of Thira in Santorini. Note the cablecar and switchbacking staircase down to the port.

Santorini, of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, is actually a composite of 5 islands, three of which are left over from a massive explosive volcanic eruption 3600 years ago and now form a caldera. The other two, slowly growing in the center of this circular archipelago, are the new volcano rising up out of the lagoon. The most recent eruption was 50 years ago.

Some 900 feet above the sea, on the caldera rim of Santorini’s main island, the whitewashed villas, houses, churches, souvenir shops and restaurants of Thira, Oia, and Imerovigli offer one of the most unique, photogenic townscapes we’ve witnessed. You’ve seen the stark blue and white images. If not here, on this blog, than in magazines, on television, and from postcards of humble-bragging friends who wished you were here (we meant it at the time). Santorini is a special place designed to provide romance-seeking tourists an upscale slice of heaven in the Aegean Sea.

Santorini splendor along the walk through Thira.

Santorini splendor along the walk through Thira.

Though we avoided the inflated prices of the hotels and villas that line the edge of the cliffs by camping on the eastern slope of Thira and by dining almost exclusively at the string of cheap-eats near Thira’s main square — souvlaki, pizza, and gyro pitas were our staple — we did splurge on a sunset boat cruise that included a self-guided hike to the top of the volcano, Nea Kameni.

There are three ways to descend the cliffs to the Old Port of Thira: cable car, donkey ride, or on foot. Santorini’s donkeys are, for reasons I’ll never understand, a major tourist attraction. People flock to this tiny island from all over the world to see the white villages and to ride the donkeys up and down the cliff. The donkey, in turn, has become a mascot of the island. Donkey t-shirts and stickers hang from every souvenir shop, the local craft brewery uses the donkey in its logo and the naming of its ales, and the aroma of sun-baked donkey piss and manure mingles with the scent of grilled lamb chops at the overpriced cliff-side restaurants you dream of eating at.

All those childhood equestrian lessons paid off. Kristin didn't hesitate to push aside any horses and donkeys that blocked the path.

All those childhood equestrian lessons paid off: Kristin didn’t hesitate to push aside any horses and donkeys that blocked the path. Also pictured: finely ground manure, before the wind.

With plenty of time to catch the boat we, being the fit and able-bodied individuals that we are, opted to walk down under our own power. The stairs face due west, the temperature was nearing 100 °F (38 °C), and the wind was gushing off the water. Donkey manure, as you are probably aware, is comprised mostly of hay and other grasses fed to the animals. On natural surfaces, this will break down and mingle with the dirt and sand of the soil and generally become indistinguishable before long. But on the scorched stone stairs of Thira, the manure gets pulverized by the traffic into a not-so-fine dust. A dust easily carried by the wind. Yes, we walked into a veritable mini-blizzard of donkey feces. Total brown-out conditions. It was over quickly, but not before our eyes, face, and — the horror! — mouths were blasted with donkey particles. We opted to pay the 5€ per person fee and ride the cable car back up after sunset. It’s a prudent investment in both health and sanity.

The view from the top of the volcano on Nea Kameni island at Santorini.

The view from the top of the volcano on Nea Kameni island at Santorini looking east to Thira.

The hike to the top of the volcano was fun and it was nice to be out on the water for an evening, but the highlight of our time in Santorini came the following night when we hiked the 10 kilometer trail from Thira to Oia along the edge of the caldera. It was the perfect way to escape the maddening crowds of touristy Thira and enjoy a quiet, rugged side of Santorini. We timed our hike to arrive in upscale Oia, at the island’s northwest tip, just before sunset where we, sweat-stained and dusty from the hike, sheepishly mingled with throngs of honeymooning couples clad in their best white linen as we waited for a rather unremarkable sunset. If only we had worn our “Paris clothes”!

The village of Imerovigli on the way to Oia at the northwest end of the main island. The hiking trail follows the edge of the caldera rim.

The village of Imerovigli on the way to Oia at the northwest end of the main island. The hiking trail follows the edge of the caldera rim and climbs up and down along the ridge. Bring sturdy footwear!

So Santorini isn’t exactly the place to go on a bicycle tour, but it is worth a visit, if only once. We ended up there because even we are suckers for the occasional can’t miss tourist trap and because it was the easiest island from which to continue our journey to Turkey by ferry.

Sunset in Oia on Santorini.

Sunset in Oia on Santorini. Not pictured: thousands of people jostling for the same photo.

In deciding to cycle some of the Greek isles instead of going overland through northern Greece into Turkey, we set out to focus on the bigger islands, places with enough land to make the journey there with it. Crete, the largest, southernmost Greek island, was our first stop after Athens and was every bit worth the 8-hour ferry ride from Piraeus. Though much of the northern coast of Crete is jam-packed with tourists and seemingly devoid of Greek culture (even the tiniest village we stopped in for lunch one day was half populated by British retirees), the interior of the island and its wonderful southern coast remain the forgotten gems of Cretan life. Like the Peloponnese and Kefalonia, Crete is extremely mountainous. We cut our daily mileage down to under 40 miles on account of the heat and still averaged over 2,500 feet of climbing each day.

One of our favorite roads ever, from Prina to Kroustos on the island of Crete.

One of our favorite roads ever, from Prina to Kroustos on the island of Crete.

Our route around Crete covered some 230 miles and took us from Rethimno on the north shore, south to the fishing village of Agia Gallini, through the mountains to Ano Villanos and down to the coast of Ierepetra, stopping along the way at minuscule villages along the coast. Our favorite, at the base of a steep olive-covered ravine, was Tertsa. A whole baby lamb was roasting on a spit, doused in olive oil and spices and demanded we stop for lunch. We waited an extra half hour for the lamb to finish roasting over the wooden fire and, as a reward for all the hard days of cycling, we treated ourselves to a kilo of delectable baby sheep. I will always brake for BBQ.

The 2-mile, 800 foot climb out of the port in Santorini.

The 2-mile, 800 foot climb out of the port in Santorini.

We spent three nights in the quaint village of Kritsa, at the end of one of the most beautiful 10 kilometer stretches of road we had ridden on the entire trip. Barely a car wide and weaving in and out of a pine forest with peak-a-boo views of the sea, the road provided the closest impersonation of mountain biking a paved road ever has. Particularly when it narrowed further along the edge of a cliff with a touch of “death-on-the-right” exposure. As wonderful as the road from Prina to Kroustas (and onward to Kritsa) was, the wedding taking place that night in Kritsa was even more special. Completely manufactured as a throwback event to boost community spirit and wrangle some tourist dollars, it was nonetheless a real wedding with real age-old traditions and costumes dusted off for a willing local couple. And it was a really good time, even if the bride and groom looked as if they regretted volunteering for this spectacle.

Sadly, no ferries continue on from Crete eastward to Rhodes or Turkey, so we ended up heading to Santorini to get back along the main tourist trail. We didn’t do any cycling on Santorini, other than the initial ride from the port to the campground, but that was enough. Anyone who has ever walked or bicycled off a ferry onto an island knows that there is always an uphill climb from the port. We’ve bicycled/walked off of ferries on numerous islands in the Pacific Northwest, in the Caribbean, in Japan, and now in Greece and we can say, without question, that Santorini is the worst. The steeply switchbacking road, replete with tour buses, hurried taxi drivers, and tourists on rented scooters and quads, none of whom seem to know where they are going, climbs 800 feet in two miles before finally leveling off after three miles. Going uphill under the midday sun was hell. Coming down it in the middle of the night for our 3am ferry to Rhodes? That was a blast!

The town of Lindos on Rhodes, where we stayed two nights a short walk from the ancient Acropolis atop the town.

The town of Lindos on Rhodes, where we stayed two nights a short walk from the ancient Acropolis atop the town.

And now we’re in Rhodes, another one of Greek’s larger islands. Home to some archaeological monuments from antiquity, the island can be viewed as either a slightly more touristy (in spots) version of Crete or, if you prefer, a poor man’s Santorini. We chose to come here because it was another island large enough to bother cycling around (though only about 110 miles or so) and because, based on preliminary research, it was a short ferry ride to Turkey. Those wishing to do a ferry-based island-hopping trip across the Aegean such as the one we’re on should learn from the mistake I’m about to share. There are far too many maps detailing the supposed ferry routes for too-many ferry companies plying these waters. And, what many of the maps don’t tell you, is that many of these routes are serviced by passenger-only catamarans and high-speed hydrofoils. Those with bicycles, like us, need to stick to the routes serviced by car ferries. The ferry leading from Rhodes to Turkey, it turns out, is passenger only. So, after our short ride around Rhodes, complete with a day off in scenic Lindos, we’ll be taking an evening ferry to the island of Kos where, the next afternoon, we will finally take a short 40 minute ferry to Bodrum, Turkey. Asia, sort of, at last!

Ferry Resource: It took some time, but I finally found a very reliable website for navigating the confusing and often outdated information about Greece’s expansive ferry system. Use Greek Travel Pages when planning a ferry-based trip to Greece’s islands and you won’t go wrong.

Camping Resource: One of the areas that Greece really outshone the other countries we visited was in the area of campground information. The Camp In Greece site offers a free downloadable PDF guide to the entire country’s campgrounds, with a ridiculous amount of information contained for each. I was able to verify the location of each campground we stayed at on Google Maps and plot our route from campsite to campsite using RideWithGPS.com — it couldn’t have been easier!

28 July, 2015

Island Biking: A Kefalonia Loop

There was no chance of us sleeping through our 8 a.m. disembarkation in Patras, Greece. We had been awake for hours. With the ferry’s few cabins already reserved by truckers and an absence of chairs, shade, or breeze on the aft deck, we decided to lay claim to a couple of facing chairs inside the lounge. And there we read, played cards, napped, and soaked our clothes in sweat during an un-air-conditioned 18-hour ferry crossing from Italy. It was one of the most uncomfortable nights of the trip, if not our lives.

Despite our exhaustion, we were thrilled to arrive in Greece and quickly secured fresh bottles of cold water, a road map of the Peloponnese region, and a fresh pound of fruit. Forty-four fast miles later, we were slicing through the finger-thick slabs of feta cheese that topped our salads as we waited for a ferry to the island of Kefalonia, off the coast of Greece’s western, Ionian shore. It wasn’t long before we were unpacked in a rented one-bedroom apartment — 35€ for the night — and taking the first of our daily swims in the sea.

Kristin riding along the coast on Kefalonia.

Kristin riding along the coast on Kefalonia.

We were on Kefalonia for four days, spending three of those cycling a 100-mile route around this mountainous island. Our first day out of Poros was spent cycling south along the coast in a clockwise direction, up and over several smaller hills, past the small coastal villages of Skala and Lourdata, before turning inland to work our way over to the Gulf of Argostoli, a finger-like body of water that nearly splits the island in two on its western side. Our route switch-backed for two miles up and over a large hill, periodically tilting as much as 12%, but yielded expansive views all the way to the island of Zakynthos to the south and the Peloponnese to the west. We rounded a narrow spit of land that intrudes on the gulf, to the Theodore Lighthouse.

Our first Greek Salad in Greece was a treat!

Our first Greek Salad in Greece was a treat!

One of the joys of this trip is learning interesting trivia about the flags of the countries we ride through. Our own nation’s “stars and stripes” were a frequently-seen design motif in Italy, where the ubiquitous margherita pizza — consisting of just tomato, mozzarella, and basil — is a nod to the Italian flag of red, white, and green. And it was there at the Theodore Lighthouse that I realized the significance of the colors in Greece’s flag: the royal blue signifies the tranquility of the Ionian and Aegean Seas while the stark white patterns represent the complexion of the British tourists who line this country’s beaches.

And it was a few of those Brits whose drunken Karaoke stylings at 3 a.m. combined with the suffocating humidity, unusually tireless, earsplitting cicadas, and unrelenting heat to deliver a new record in the category of Most Uncomfortable Night of Sleep, Ever.  After a hundred nights in our tent, we seemed to have finally discovered a weakness in our beloved Hilleberg Nallo GT3. The screen fabric on the door doesn’t just keep the bugs out, it also blocks the breeze too. Not that there was any breeze that night in Argostoli, but the inner tent’s mesh is simply too tightly woven to allow any air circulation at all. I took a chance on the mosquitoes having gone to rest and partially unzipped the mesh in the middle of the night, only to have our sweat-soaked bodies attract a dozen of them within minutes. We crushed the survivors come morning; the volume of blood that squirted forth proved they enjoyed their nightcap with us all too well.

The beach at Argostoli was so shallow, you had to walk out over 50 meters to get shoulder deep.

The beach at Argostoli was so shallow, you had to walk out over 50 meters to get waist deep.

Despite our exhaustion, getting an early start on this second day of riding in Kefalonia proved to be a blessing. After a quick roll through the slowly awakening, colorful seaside town of Argostoli, we were again headed north along the eastern side of the gulf. The road climbed gently for over fifteen miles, twisting in and out of barren, rocky canyons as went. The blue of the sea was always to our left; signs warning of rockfall repeating every kilometer on our right. Traffic was light, but started to pick up as we neared the memorable viewpoint overlooking famed Myrtos Beach, a two-kilometer strand of blindingly white pebbles, routinely rated Greece’s best beach. We didn’t opt to descend the steeply-hairpinning road to the beach but did spend some time chatting with some folks who shouted some encouragement to us earlier during the climb to the viewpoint. Nick and Zoe, on vacation with their children from the UK (and boasting dark tans), let us know the road to Assos was closed due to a landslide from a series of earthquakes that shook the island in 2014, but Nick reckoned we’d be able to slip through on bikes.

We hadn’t met a roadblock we couldn’t carry, push, or ride through or around yet, and this would not be our first. We pedaled up to a large metal gate across the road, behind which stood an empty work zone. There was a scalable boulder to the right, a life-threatening drop-off to the left. But, upon closer inspection, I realized the padlock on the gate was unlocked. I looked around, neither heard nor saw any workers, and sneakily unlatched the gate and led the way into the road closure area. A minute later, after taking more photos of Myrtos Beach down below, I realized there were two workers watching us in the massive backhoe just fifty yards past the gate. They were laughing as I pedaled towards them and, caught red handed, what choice did I have but to laugh and wave and point into the distance? The two continued laughing and waved us onward, saving us from having to decide whether or not to continue with a 30 kilometer detour. We did have to push through some remnants of the landslide and carry our bikes over some strategically-placed boulders at the other end of the road closure, but it saved us over an hour.

Gorgeous seaside cliffs heading north from Argostoli towards Assos.

Gorgeous seaside cliffs heading north from Argostoli towards Assos.

From there we descended nearly a thousand feet down to the picturesque village of Assos, nestled alongside a horseshoe-shaped bay and lined with multi-colored houses and cafes on one side and a castle-topped hill on the other. The descent was as thrilling as it was scenic, but it was also hot. Ducking my head into a slipstream position for speed, the air ramping off my handlebar bag and into my face felt as if a hairdryer was being held at point-blank range. Speed be damned, I had to sit up. With the hardest part of the day still ahead, we stayed in Assos only long enough to enjoy a couple Greek salads and to load up on water while watching sunbathing tourists relax on the beach beside the cafe. Assos would be a lovely place to return to and I’m sure the hike up to the castle would be worth it, if only for the views of the harbor below, but we had a three mile rocky hike-a-bike that needed our attention.

The gorgeous village of Assos.

The gorgeous village of Assos.

A local hiker tried, in Greek, to warn us off the loose, rocky, track but we weren’t having it. And when I say “we” I really mean “I”. Kristin, within a third of a mile, was already contemplating turning back. The route I chose back out of Assos led up and over an uninhabited, rocky, mountain dotted with olive trees and home to a number of free-roaming, bell-clanging goats. Climbing a thousand feet in less than than three miles, and only rideable in small doses, it was immediately clear that this was going to take some doing. We weren’t pushing for long before I saw the temperature readout on my Garmin climb to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) and I knew we needed a pep talk. Kristin hates pushing her bike and, in fairness, given the weight of our bikes and our respective amounts of upper body strength, pushing the bike is a lot harder for her than me. Not to mention, as a mountain biker, hiking with my bike is something I just accept.

“Listen,” I said, “I know this isn’t fun. Nobody looks forward to pushing their bike up a mountain. And I know it’s hot and you’re tired, and the bike is heavy, but the only way we can get through this is if you keep positive. Focus on how beautiful this mountain is, how great the olive trees smell, and the sight of the blue water down below. Think about how much better this is than being stuck in an office somewhere! Think about how few people even know this trail exists. You saw the hiker down at the bottom; he didn’t think we could get the bikes up this path. But we can! You just got to not allow yourself to dwell on how much this sucks. I know it sucks. But you can’t think about that. Think about that later, when we’re sitting on the beach with a cold beer. Right now all you have to do is think about going hiking. And you’re taking your bike with you.”

Me on a ridable portion of the rocky trail.

Doug on a rideable portion of the rocky trail.

Kristin returned a look I couldn’t quite decipher. I could sense her about to cry; I could tell she wanted to punch me for selecting this route; and I could even sense a small part of her wanting to throw the bike off a cliff and be done with it. But this look only lasted a moment. Then she began to nod in agreement (resigned acceptance?) and pushed past me. The climb took far longer than I anticipated, and we were nearly out of water when we we finally reached the top, but no tears were shed, no voices raised, and no bikes tossed into the Ionian. All things considered, it went as well as I could have asked.

The problem with this hike-a-bike was that we had another thousand-plus foot climb lurking just three miles later and, this time, I wasn’t entirely clear if it was paved or not. I knew the first climb was going to be off-road. But despite having only ridden 30 miles so far, we were already completely spent. If it proved to be another hike-a-bike? I didn’t want to ask…

The view from the top of northern Kefalonia, looking out to the island of Ithaca.

The view from the top of northern Kefalonia, looking out to the island of Ithaca.

The good thing about Greece is that there are are mini-markets and cafes everywhere. And they all stock 1.5 liter bottles of mineral water, refrigerated, and sell them for 1€. But despite our ability to quickly replenish our water reserves and the fact that the second climb was on a paved road, it was still almost too much. The heat had won. More pep talks ensued and we ended up having to stop and rest after every 100 feet of elevation, but little by little we eventually topped out over 2,000 feet on the northeast coast of Kefalonia and were rewarded with an incredible view of nearby Ithaca, that mountainous island the mythical hero Oddyseus struggled so mightily to return to. Talk about inspiration!

The descent, like all great things in life, was over too fast. Flying downhill on a coastal, cliff-hugging road at speeds approaching 40 mph was as exhilirating as always — particularly when the road narrowed to one lane to zip through a small mountain-clinging hamlet — but that odd feeling of nausea from too much exertion and too much heat was settling in. We paused briefly for photos as we descended into idyllic Ag Effimia, then loaded up on groceries and water and the ever-present Fanta and nectarines. But those last few miles into our campground in Sami were almost too much. The campground host, a Chicago native, took one look at us and insisted we worry about setting up the tent later and go take a swim first. Whether it was because of our salt-caked clothing or because we smelled bad, I don’t know, but we took her advice and worried about the details later. We estimate we combined to drink nearly twelve liters of water with dinner.

We spent two nights at the wonderful Karavomilos Campground in Sami, the single best campground we have stayed at in all of our travels, and it was on that second day that we had a slight realization. We rented a pair of sun beds and an umbrella on the beach for 5€ and spent the day reading the fantastic Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield between periodic dips in the sea. We were chatting with a couple of Brits on the lounge chairs next to us when we found ourselves using a slightly different phrase than one we’ve repeated so many times before. We didn’t describe ourselves as “cycling around the world” but as “touring the world by bicycle.” It may seem a hairsplitting distinction, but not to us. After all, there we were, on Kefalonia, riding in a circle. And why? Because I saw the island on Google Maps, thought it had a cool name, and saw that a loop was possible. It wasn’t “on our route” (just as Spain and Morocco aren’t exactly on the way east from Denmark!). It was just there, caught my fancy, and Kristin thought it sounded fun. Just as this relaxing day off at the beach in Sami sounded like a good thing to do.

The Karavomilos Campground in Sami is the nicest campground we stayed at anywhere in the world so far. This is their "lounge area."

The Karavomilos Campground in Sami is the nicest campground we stayed at anywhere in the world so far. This is their “lounge area” for those times when you don’t feel like going to the beach or the pool.

We completed our lap of Kefalonia the next day, scaling the 1700′ mountain en route back to Poros where we soon boarded a ferry back to Peloponnese. A day later we were in Ancient Olympia, gawking at the ruined Temple of Zeus, embarrassing myself by sprinting the length of the 5th century B.C. track, and standing at the foot of the Temple of Hera where the Olympic torch continues to be lit before every Olympiad.  The history of Olympia was impressive, as are the mountain views where we are now as I right this, in Andritsaina, but Kefalonia boasted a blend of beach and mountain and small towns that suit us perfectly. It’s no wonder all those pasty Brits keep returning year after year. I can’t help but want to do the same.

Welcome Adventure Cyclist Readers: If you’re just making your way to our blog after reading Doug’s essay in the Aug/Sept issue of Adventure Cyclist and are wondering why we’re only now just making it to Greece, then allow us to explain. We had to detour home to the United States this past January for a family issue. With our bikes safely stored in Rome, and with another family obligation in June, we decided to spend the spring in Japan and Indonesia. But we’re back on our bikes now and continuing on our journey eastward. Thanks for coming to check out the blog and thank you for supporting the Adventure Cycling organization.

9 May, 2015

Japan by Train: Skip the JR Pass!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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