Tag Archives: Weather
16 September, 2016

The Burning Mountains of Portugal

I first smelled the smoke during the drive to Alcobaça. We were headed inland, taillights to Nazare and its worlds-largest-waves, when that first acrid whiff I find to be so intoxicating snuffed out the lingering scent of sea air. Later, I downshifted to first and piloted the car up the meandering, olive-lined alleys to the castle town of Ourem, pondering the oddity of a world in which fire can overtake water. The smoke intensified. While reading poolside at our pousada, I could feel the ashen clouds floating across the valley, the smoke on the crystalline water, delicately smothering my book and body as it perfumed my hair with wildfire aromatics. Peering over the wall of the hilltop village we saw a ridgeline on fire across the valley. A wall of smoke hung just above the horizon, masking the burning garnet in gray gauze.

Sunset during wildfire.

Sunset amongst the wildfire smoke and ash, viewed from Ourem.

Long Waits and Late Nights in Lisbon

Though a friend tipped me off to the presence of wildfires burning in the Portuguese countryside several weeks before our trip, the only smoke encountered in the capital city was that of the cigarette variety. Despite an abundance of signage announcing the country’s new tougher, anti-smoking ordinances, ashtrays were nearly as common as houseflies. The presence of cigarette smoke was jarring – I often go months without encountering any at home – but the flies were far more annoying. As was the waiting.

We stepped off our overnight flight to Lisbon and joined a crowd the likes I’ve which I’ve seldom seen outside of Seahawks games. A single line of people serpentined back and forth though dozens of hairpins, crossed the terminal from end to end, and eventually (thankfully after we had gotten on it) extended up the stairs and back toward the gates. Well over a thousand people queued to pass through an immigration checkpoint manned by just three agents. Over a thousand tired, anxious travelers stood in orderly fashion wondering what crimes they committed in a prior life to deserve such hell. I may have preferred an encounter with the Langoliers than so much humanity in so little space.

Long lines in Lisbon.

The rental car lines at Lisbon airport at 11am on a Monday.

The clock soon struck nine and another half dozen agents took their positions. Time to get through immigration: 1:45. We encountered a similar crush of people three days later, upon returning to the airport to pick up our rental car. Understaffed? A victim of its own popularity? Yes and yes. But also friendly. I’ll still take it over Newark.

Having not spent enough of our first day in Lisbon waiting in line, we dropped our bags at our hotel and promptly walked downtown to join the throngs in line for the famed Tram #28. The electric trams of route 28 travel through the hilly, graffiti-covered Alfama district of Lisbon, passing the city’s castle and other major sights. That it was over 100 degrees out and there was no shade didn’t matter. That the only people on line were tourists didn’t register.

Our travel skills were as rusty as the trolley tracks we waited alongside and whether it was the heat, the sleep-deprivation, or sheer laziness, we stood in the searing heat for over an hour waiting for the so-called “Tourist Tram.” And when the tram finally banged and clanged its way up and around a few hills in an ugly, littered, battered neighborhood, that layer of rust we’ve accumulated since returning home was knocked free and we alighted at the first stop we could.  What were we thinking?

Lisbon castle steps.

We followed this couple down the stairs, looking for a way back into town, only to discover it was a dead-end. Oops.

If asked to sum up our time in Portugal, I would describe it as a ten-day pub crawl broken up by long drives in the mountains, some nice meals, and a few side-trips to gawk at architectural marvels of centuries past. And in this regard, we were almost thankful for the heat as it made the Sagres and Super Bock – Portugal’s answer to the ubiquitous light lager that plagues every country – somewhat palatable. Our three nights in Lisbon went by quickly.  A trip to Belem to see the glorious Monasteiro dos Jeronimos and the hip LX Factory enclave on day two; a train ride to Sintra (Portugal’s less glitzy answer to Versailles) on day three.

Lisbon fog.

The big bridge in Lisbon with a wonderfully low fog bank. Reminiscent of San Francisco Bay.

The highlight of our time in Lisbon was spent eating and drinking. A late meal of tapas in the Bairro Alto neighborhood preceded a marvelous time spent listening to Fado with three new friends we shared a table with. Kristin had done her homework and learned of a hole-in-the-wall Fado club named A Tasca do Chico where many Fado singers have gotten their start. Singers drop in and perform in the darkened pub that sits no more than thirty while two guitarists – one on a Portuguese twelve-stringer and another on a Spanish six-string – provide accompaniment. Fado is folk music best sang loud and passionately. It’s about heartbreak and loss, and this will be evident to you with or without a friendly Lisboan artist buying you beers. Think of it as Flamenco without the dancing. Two performers this night stole the show. The last of which, a young, petite woman in stiletto heels, tights, and a breezy blouse could not be topped. We saw no reason to stay beyond her 2am performance.

Downtown Lisbon.

Downtown Lisbon. All cities should be so pedestrian-friendly.

One challenge you might have in visiting Portugal is that there are limited dining options available on Sundays. In this country that takes eating late to a level that even Italians would question, most restaurants shutter after lunch on Sundays. This is where talking to a local can really come in handy. We were directed to an admittedly trendy restaurant in the Chiado neighborhood called Sacramento. Wandering in without a reservation, we weren’t sat until nearly 11pm, but the meal was worth the wait. Tourists and locals blend in this swanky establishment for modern takes on Portuguese classics and a rather stellar wine selection.

The night ended with my asking for the bill in such near-perfect Portuguese, complete with accent, that the server did a double-take. Her flattery led to a twenty-minute chat about language which I’ll spare you, except to encourage you to make an effort to go beyond ola and obrigato when you visit.

Pena Palace

Pena Palace from atop the mountain in Sintra.

Walking the High Mountains of Estrella

The Audi A1, a car every bit as virile as the two-buck steak sauce that shares its name, barely fit through the stone archway leading up the cobbled streets to our pousada in Ourem. After three days of touring and imbibing in Lisbon, a brief stop at Buddha Eden (the most WTF thing of all the WTF things) and a lunchtime tour of the magnificent monastery in Alcobaca, I was thrilled to park the car and settle into two nights of eating well and doing nothing.

Portugal’s network of pousadas – historical buildings of significance transformed into inns of varying degrees of luxury – provides travelers with a unique opportunity to pillow up someplace unusual. The pousada in Ourem, where we stayed, was a 15th century hospital located quite literally in the shadow of a medieval castle. And for two nights it was our home, complete with half-board. Though a festival would be taking place the following week, the hilltop village of Ourem was deserted. The cobblestone alleys, the castle ruins, and the cafes were ours and ours alone. And while the other guests of the inn day-tripped to Fatima and other nearby towns of note, we enjoyed the quiet of the smoke-scented village and read by the pool and rested. For I knew we had a long day barreling down on us.

Alcobaca monastery cloister

I’m a sucker for cloister walkways of medieval monasteries.

I also knew better than to ask the hotel clerk in the mountain village of Manteigas about the routes we were planning to hike, but I did anyway. Locals, particularly those who may be inconvenienced by the trouble you get yourself in, will always try to steer to you to the safest option no matter how hard you try to convince them of your credentials. Boring! Thanks to a very helpful GPS-enabled map app and available trail descriptions and maps, I was able to narrow our day of hiking in Serra da Estrella Nature Park down to three options. The clerk confirmed that yes, the route I wanted to do – the only one with the 5-star difficulty rating — was the most scenic, but it was also overgrown, very hard to follow, and just two weeks ago an Italian couple staying at his hotel had to be rescued. He tried his best to steer me onto other shorter routes that held little interest, not realizing he was only increasing my desire with each word of warning. He also made the mistake of doubting Kristin’s abilities.

We'd be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

We’d be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

The twisty, cliffside drive to the trailhead – and ensuing race back down six hours later – were the highlights of the day. Those hours in between, spent hiking the Central Massif Route, were a tangle of slow-going searches for rock cairns and barely-visible trail blazes under a hundred-degree sun.

With the car parked at the highest point in mainland Portugal (the Azore Islands boast the country’s highest elevation), we followed the map out onto a rock-litter scrubland some 6,000 feet above sea level. There wasn’t a tree taller than myself as far as I could see. Nor was there any significant evidence of a trail. We followed the GPS track as best we could, stepping around cowpies and scampering down boulders, periodically encountering remnants of a trail here, a rock cairn there. We were making progress and eventually came to a trail sign. The route we wanted descended into a wide glacial valley from once-upon-a-time and down we went.

The scenery wasn’t really all that spectacular (though I admit it’s hard to impress those of us lucky to call the Pacific Northwest our backyard) but the route-finding difficulty lived up to the clerk’s warning. And though the jumble of rocks and bushes may not have been tall enough to provide respite from the searing sun, they were certainly tall enough to hide the cairns and blazes.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat. Anybody see a cairn?

The wildfires in this part of Portugal were to the north of us – out of sight and out of smell – but they were on our minds all the same. We weren’t so much hiking as we were swimming across a hillside of knee-high grass as dry as a Hindenburg-era newspaper impaled on a saguaro cactus. Down, down we went, ever so slowly into the valley, trying our best not to slip on the grass. Trying so hard to stay on the rocks for traction, all the while wondering if sneakers-upon-granite could produce a spark. I tumbled once, rolling sideways off the ledge of a rock, fortunately landing on two uninjured feet, straddling a shrub. I heard the camera draped around my neck clink off a rock as I rolled and immediately panicked. One spark would be all it took.

There was a lake in the distance but zero chance of reaching it before a fire would overtake us. I put the camera in my backpack and distracted myself by wondering if the trekking poles we left at home could cause a spark.

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

We eventually crossed a broad grazing land at the far end of the valley and though the route was supposed to continue up and over the shoulder of a mountain, we could find no evidence of it doing so. After several back-and-forth searches for cairns and footprints, we had had enough. The highlights were behind us and the trail was far too much hassle with too little reward. So we followed a connector trail down a very steep hillside to one of the most popular routes in the park – the Glacier Route. The 17 km route led from the upper trailhead down to the village of Manteigas where we were staying, roughly paralleling the wonderfully windy road we drove up. And though we were able to hitchhike a little of the way back to the car, we ultimately found ourselves walking several miles along the side of the road to the car.

The thirteen miles we hiked took nearly six hours. The beer and ice cream at the summit restaurant almost made it worth it. The drive back down certainly did.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town, after the wind had extinguished most of the candles.

We slept soundly that night despite live music echoing off our hotel until 2am for the second night in a row. Though it was a weekday, it was the culmination of a two-week Catholic celebration of the Lady of Grace (Lady of Miracles, some say). The prior night we watched as thousands of devotees marched in a candlelit procession through the streets of Manteigas as four women carried a large statue through town. An orchestra and live rock band played through the night as festival goers enjoyed plentiful meat, wine, and beer for token prices.

Sipping Our Way Along the Douro

Portugal didn’t find its way into our basket of travel dreams because we wanted to see Lisbon or go hiking in the mountains, as fun as those things were. Nor do we have any interest in joining the throngs of sun worshipers in Algarve. No, it landed in the basket because many years ago I viewed a travel show about wine that culminated with a segment on Porto and the famed vineyards of the Douro River Valley. If I was to return to Portugal in the future, I would spend the entire time in the Douro.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The Douro River spills into the Atlantic at Porto, only the second largest city in Portugal, but certainly the most photogenic. And the river that flows past its hilly, multi-colored structures, pours out of a massive network of terraced vineyards where dozens of grape varieties are grown, turned into wine, and shipped throughout the world. To visit the Douro is to be both awed by the scenery and overwhelmed by the options of wine tastings. And though September is harvest time and the busiest tourist season of the year for the vineyards and cellars of the Douro, the crowds were manageable.

Porto skyline.

The beautiful Porto.

And so we spent our final days sipping port, enjoying the view from the villa-turned-guesthouse we booked in Mesao Frio, and watching the river flow by. In Porto, we wandered the alleys and streets, shopped at a street market, attended a free outdoor concert with the Portuguese Philharmonic Orchestra, walked the surfer’s beach and ate grilled sardines, drank more wine and port than we care to admit, and fell in love with a city that was every bit as beautiful as it seemed on the small screen all those years ago. A city I probably won’t return to in this life, but one I’ll remember fondly all the same.

It wouldn't be a European TFG post without a few bikes in the midst.

It wouldn’t be a TFG post from Europe without a few bikes shown.

 

 

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!

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.

16 July, 2015

Lapping the Salento Coast

Red-legged grasshoppers bounced, leapt, and ricocheted off the ground, our bikes, and our panniers as we pedaled our way along a rocky road, flanked by endless fields of barren farmland stretching to the horizon. Hundreds, if not thousands of these insects, a swarm unlike any I’d seen before, scattered like ping-pong balls on triggered mousetraps as our wheels crunched over rock and bug alike. Their existence proved, in the course of the mile they inhabited, that a comment I made earlier to Kristin was completely wrong: something could live in this environment. Not much later, on a road actually shown on my map of Puglia, but still in a landscape only barely suited for human existence, we pulled over under the first tree we’d spotted in far too long. I handed the dwindling contents of my three water bottles to Kristin and all-but force-fed her the remaining apricots in my front, non-drive-side pannier. Her pace had slowed and I saw in my mirror that she was beginning to wobble. Heat stroke, in all likelihood, was setting in. A little while later, rejuvenated by the healing powers of ice cream and Fanta, Kristin was smiling brightly for the camera as we marked our ten-thousandth mile pedaled on the highway into Matera.

I’ve said it a thousand times: the highs are higher and the lows are lower on a bike tour. And you’ll experience both in a matter of minutes.

Home to Paleolithic-era caves carved into a clay cliff face and adorned with 16th century facades and a gauntlet of cobblestone pathways and staircases leading up to the palazzo and churches left behind by the city’s wealthier gentry, the Matera of today is a must-see trip back in time to antiquity. Forty years ago it was a national disgrace, site of a forced evacuation, and home to what may well have been the foulest living conditions in Western civilization.

The sassi lit up at night.

Sasso Barisano lit up at night in Matera, as viewed from Piazza Duomo.

Carlo Levi, in his book “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” recounts a description of Matera as told to him by his sister, a doctor who came to visit him in exile, in the 1930s:

The houses were open on account of the heat, and as I went by I could see into the caves, whose only light came in through the front doors. I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds, and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lays dogs, sheep, goats, and pigs. Most families have just one cave to live in and there they sleep all together; men women, children, and animals…

I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty. I saw children sitting on the doorsteps, in the dirt, while the sun heat down on them, with their eyes half-closed and their eyelids red and swollen; flies crawled across the lids, but the children stayed quite still, without raising a hand to brush them away…

In the dark smelly caves where they lived I saw children lying on torn blankets, with their teeth chattering from fever. Others, reduced to skin and bones by dysentery, could hardly drag themselves about. I saw children with waxen faces who seemed to me to have something worse than malaria, perhaps some tropical disease such as Kala Azar or black fever. The thin women, with dirty undernourished babies hanging at their flaccid breasts, spoke to me mildly and with despair. I felt, under the blinding sun, as if I were in a city stricken by the plague.

The book, written about his year in political exile in Salento, the part of Puglia that forms the “heel” of Europe’s boot-shaped appendage, shone a light on this forgotten, beautiful, unique, disease-infested land and the peasants who inhabited it. Decades later, after several failed policies attempted to solve the problem of Matera’s deplorable living conditions, the evictions were complete. Then, in the late 20th century, a cleanup began. People had realized Matera’s cliff-side sassi were a world heritage gold mine. Caves were scrubbed and made inhabitable, inns opened, ristorantes popped up, and even Hollywood movies such as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” were filmed here. Conservation begat restoration begat profit.

Our two nights in Matera turned into three; it was too special of a place to leave too soon. Our mornings were spent wandering the maze-like collection of alleys and stairs in Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano and by night we dined al fresco with the Matera residents on Via Ridola. Our first night in Matera, by sheer coincidence, we were able to celebrate our mileage milestone with a free classical concert in a church square just a short stroll from our inn. There, amongst hundreds of Matera’s residents, we sat in rapt attention as one of the most gifted pianists I’ve ever seen performed in front of a fifty-piece orchestra. And no more informed or respectful audience was ever assembled! Such a joy to see a performance where no smartphones were held aloft, where nobody watched the event through a camera’s LCD! Premature applause that often, at classical concerts, accompanies the end of a movement mistaken for a symphony’s conclusion was politely hushed by those who knew the tune. If there was any complaint to raise it would be that one particular gentleman sitting near us saw to it to hum along with the music. What a night!

The Trulli houses of Alberobello are worth an hour's visit, but I was most excited about spotting this watermelon popsicle. I hadn't seen one of these since the 1980s! Complete with chocolate "seeds." Who remembers these things?

The Trulli houses of Alberobello are worth an hour’s visit, but I was most excited about spotting this watermelon popsicle. I hadn’t seen one of these since the 1980s! Complete with chocolate “seeds.” Who else remembers these things? And it tasted even better than I remembered!

From Matera we pedaled our way to the collection of squat, conical dwellings known as Trulli houses in the town of Alberobello and then, rather than head straight to the port of Brindisi, we turned south again and decided to trace the coast of Salento in a counter-clockwise loop, keeping the multi-hued waters as close as possible. One more week in Italy!

We pedaled our way along the gently-sloping Ionian coast, around the cape, then north back along the more rugged, cliff-laden coast of the Adriatic Sea. We stretched this short 220-mile loop into five days in part to concede to the sun’s unrelenting pressure and also to allow more time at the beach each day.

Kristin pedaling into the historic city of Gallipoli, once a part of "Greater Greece" and then warred over for, oh, about two millenia.

Kristin pedaling into the historic city of Gallipoli, once a part of “Greater Greece” and then warred over for, oh, about two millenia.

The Salento region of southern Italy is where Italians go for summer vacation. And, whether you’re on a bicycle, in a rental car, or in an RV, you should too! We hit the coast in Torre Castiglione and followed the coastal road as it wended its way through numerous beach towns and farming communities from one campground to another. Roadside brush fires closed the road, smoke billowed in the distance, and the heat from recently-charred landscapes  was close enough to feel, but the air smelled not of char, but of licorice and olives and the sea. Beach traffic was thick at times, particularly around historic Gallipoli on the Ionian side of the peninsula, but the drivers always gave us plenty of room and passed with care.

Sand, coral, and crowds. The Ionian side of Salento, particularly north of Ugento, is packed with people.

Sand, coral, and crowds. The Ionian side of Salento, particularly north of Ugento, is packed with people. And this wasn’t high season yet. The prices jump starting in late July and August is apparently booked full well in advance. Come in early July!

Though a big part of the Italian beach experience involves attending incredibly crowded beach clubs and being shoe-horned into meticulously aligned rows of matching umbrellas and lounge chairs (something we managed to avoid), we found plenty of opportunities to pull off on the side of the road and claim a peace of solitude along the water’s edge. And sometimes, like in the historic city of Gallipoli, Leuca, and Tricase, we just joined in with a smattering of locals down by the harbor and took a quick dive off the breakwater before getting back on our bikes.

Beachfront camping resorts provide another option. The furthest thing from a wilderness experience I can imagine, these sprawling complexes contain hundreds of campsites, a market, restaurant, and even a discotheque. They are also not without their fair share of Italian bureaucracy. Two of the larger campgrounds we stayed in on the Ionian side insisted on the following procedure. First, we had to wait until after 4 p.m. to be allowed into the campground. Quiet hours were 2-4 p.m. and though the deejay would blare its music until well past midnight, we were not allowed to set up our tent until after 4 p.m. for fear of disturbing the slumbering campers. Secondly, once finally registered, we had to wait to be escorted by an attendee who would personally show us the available sites and then radio back to the office which one we chose. He then gave us a plastic ID number which, upon paying, would have to be turned back in in order to retrieve our passports. The whole thing was maddening and, aside from the mosquitoes, offered no commingling with nature. But it was cheaper than a hotel and we were steps from gorgeous turquoise-colored crystalline waters and white sand beaches, not to mention the absolutely stunning bikini-clad scenery on the beach. The water of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas are so salty that floating is a breeze; they’re so clear that I could count individual sand grains while standing in shoulder-deep water. If only there were waves, it would be perfect.

One way to beat the heat is by keeping a constant stock of apricots, plums, and cherries on the bike at all times. Fruit stands and trucks are everywhere and the fruit is seldom more than 1 Euro per kilogram.

One way to beat the heat is by keeping a constant stock of apricots, plums, and cherries on the bike at all times. Fruit stands and trucks are everywhere and the fruit is seldom more than 1-2 Euro per kilogram.

We didn’t sleep well in the campgrounds due to the noise and they’re not particularly cheap or wild, but we believe travel is more than centuries-old cultural sites and museums, but experiencing things the way the locals do. And this is how Italians do the beach.

Enjoying a short section of winding bicycle trail along the Ionian coast.

Enjoying a short section of winding bicycle trail along the Ionian coast.

We rounded the cape at Leuca and climbed steeply up onto the cliffs north of the town. From there, as we pedaled the undulating coast along the Adriatic side of Salento we came across what just might be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. From a bridge some 30 meters above the water, we saw a series of staircases descending to a narrow funnel-shaped canyon with room for two dozen people. The cliffs fanned out into the sparkling sea, people snorkeled along the base of the cliffs as young boys took turns daring one another to leap from higher and higher perches. Kristin and I looked on from atop the bridge and, not wanting to risk leaving our bikes and gear unattended, breathed a hefty sigh and pedaled onward, though with another entry in our ever-lengthening list of places to return to.

If there's a more gorgeous beach than this one, a few miles north of Leuca, than I'd love to see it.

If there’s a more gorgeous beach than this one, a few miles north of Leuca, than I’d love to see it.

It was about 20 feet down to the water from this chunk of coral the boys were leaping from.

It was about 20 feet down to the water from this chunk of coral the boys were leaping from.

We greeted the air conditioned comfort of our B&B in Lecce with a sigh of relief, but were soon longing for our afternoon swims and nightly dips in the sea before dinner. Fortunately, we’re headed to the Ionian Islands and region of Peloponnese in Greece. There will be plenty more beaches in store for us this summer. We just hope we won’t have to cycle through another record heat wave in order to reach them.

Heading north along the Adriatic Coast towards Otranto.

Heading north along the Adriatic Coast towards Otranto. The roads have a lot less traffic down near Leuca.

20 April, 2015

April in Kyoto: You Might Want to Skip It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Not Kyoto, Where?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 February, 2015

A Winter to Remember

The thermometer read -8.7º F (-22º C) when I came down for coffee this morning. The snow outside, blanketing the field out the window of the bedroom-turned-office I spend my days in, fell over a month ago. It doesn’t melt, it only deepens, compacts, and hardens. I had forgotten what winter felt like. Sure, we’d get occasional snowstorms and a couple days below freezing at our house in western Washington, but winter weather — real winter weather — was something we dealt with only by choice. It was tucked away in the mountains to our east, always there if you wanted to visit, but not something that you had to deal with on a daily basis.

Short-lived snow showers like this one don't add up to much, but sure look pretty coming down.

Short-lived snow showers like this one don’t add up to much, but sure look pretty coming down.

It’s been 17 years since Kristin and I spent a winter in the northeastern United States, and even then it was only to bundle up for the dash across a Pennsylvania college campus. With no shoveling responsibilities of our own back then, it hardly counts. So, in reality, it’s been over two decades since we experienced winter life in New Jersey, dealing with the cold and the snow and wind-chill and the ever-changing road conditions and fretting about the lack of tire-tread on the car we’re driving.

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One of the many snowy days since our return to NJ.

This much I now know: Sub-freezing temperatures feel a lot warmer when you only experience them while strapped into a snowboard or snowshoeing through knee-deep powder with a pack on your back. Recreation makes everything better. Warmer. Running errands, going for a walk, and taking the garbage out, on the other hand, exposes you to a cold I had long since forgotten existed. We’ve been back in New Jersey for over a month and the daytime temperature has only risen above freezing a half-dozen times in that span. Too many days failed to exceed 26º F (-3º C). The layer of ice on the driveway and front walk has existed for over three weeks. An inch-thick slab with no signs of budging, it has stubbornly ignored the sprinklings of salt and chemical de-icer I apply.

Went for a hike on the mountain bike trails at nearby Chimney Rock Park, one of the first places I ever mountain bikes with my brother.

Went for a hike on the mountain bike trails at nearby Chimney Rock Park, one of the first trails I rode with my brother.

There was a period last summer, during our ride through New England, when we began to think that settling in Vermont might be worth considering in order to be closer to family. As far as New England states go, Vermont’s geography and politics offers a close approximation to western Washington, its landlocked nature aside. But now? Hell no, screw that, not in a million years! The cold and snow we’ve been bemoaning for the past month in New Jersey is but a mere sample of a typical Vermont winter. No thank you. The inevitable drought that will plague the Pacific Northwest  later this year could be severe, but those balmy spring-like conditions Seattle has been enjoying lately sure seem nice from this side of the country.

I wrote most of the preceding paragraphs yesterday morning: then the ambulance came.

Kristin’s father was in terrible pain throughout the weekend, pain that was suddenly manifesting in nausea and trembling. The comforts of home were no longer enough to keep him comfortable. Fortunately, he’s got a great team of doctors and was admitted into the hospital, assigned a cozy single-patient room, and is close enough to home for frequent family visits. It may or may not be directly related to the cancer, we’ll know more soon.

Nothing like a walk through the woods on a freezing cold day.

Nothing like a walk through the woods on a freezing cold day.

Life is a funny thing. We’ve been back in the United States for over six weeks now and, if we’re being honest, we really miss our bikes. We think about them daily, miss being on the move, and have even questioned the length of this unexpected trip home. Sure, we’ve gotten to spend more time visiting family this winter than we have in years, but it’s not our nature to sit idle. We’re restless people.  We just want to get going again. But then something like yesterday happens and we’re so relieved that we happen to be here. Kristin’s mother was glad that Kristin was in the house to call her sisters as she dealt with the EMTs. Kristin, in turn, was happy to hand the phone to me when she began to sob. Our brothers-in-law were both available to accompany Kristin’s sisters to the hospital while we babysat our niece and nephew.  The day went as well as it could, the strength of this family I’m happy to have married into fully on display. Back home after another visit, I cooked dinner so Kristin’s mother could pack a bag and get back to the hospital quickly. Kristin tended to her father’s pertinent email as her sisters called with updates from the hospital. Nobody needed us to be here, but we’re sure glad we were.

Kristin's parents dogs enjoying the snowy weather from the comforts of their chair.

Kristin’s parents dogs enjoying the snowy weather from the comforts of their chair.

Kristin and her dad were supposed to have left for Washington D.C. yesterday morning for a three-night father-daughter getaway. They had even arranged for a tour of the White House with the local Congressman. That trip to D.C., the other Washingtonisn’t going to happen. Or maybe it will. The one thing we’ve learned this past year is to not try and predict the future. We were supposed to be in Greece by now. We’re not. Instead, we’re headed to Japan in two weeks. Or maybe not.  We’re flexible.

Future Travel: When we left Italy last month we did so planning to spend March and April in Japan before heading to Bhutan for an 11-day trek in the Himalaya. That trip was cancelled last week due to a shortage of signups (we declined the option to pay extra for a private tour, as it was already budget-bustingly expensive to begin with). Not wanting to head back to North America or Europe after just going to Japan, we decided to book the entire month of May in Bali, in a small house in Ubud that will serve as a perfect writer’s retreat and basecamp for exploring Bali, Lombok, and Komodo. I miss surfing. Kristin misses yoga.

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Special Thanks: Kristin wanted me to once again thank you all for the wonderful comments and encouragement you left in response to our Detours Ahead post and to make sure we provided you, our faithful readers and friends, a short update. Those wanting a bit more information might be interested in this article about Kristin’s father, Eric, that was recently published in the local paper here in NJ. We’d also like to thank my mother for her generous contribution to our “cherry blossom party” and her sister Susan, my aunt, for a lovely Valentine’s Day gift. And to all of our family and friends who we’ve spent time with this past six weeks, letting us eat your food and drink your beers.

18 July, 2014

Manhattanhenge 2014

We interrupt this month off the bikes to share a series of photos I took last weekend in New York City. Our good friends Alan and Katrina traveled east to spend a week with us in New Jersey and that nonstop whirlwind tour of city, beach, and amusement park landed us in Manhattan during the annual “Manhattan Solstice” event. For those who, like me, had never heard of the so-called Manhattanhenge phenomena, twice a year the setting sun aligns perfectly with the grid-shaped orientation of Manhattan’s urban landscape, creating a mesmerizing effect as the glowing ball of light falls perfectly between the buildings of Manhattan’s cross-streets.

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According to Wikipedia, the term was first coined by everybody’s favorite COSMOS celebrity, Neil deGrasse Tyson. The effect is most striking during the days immediately following the alignment. This year, by sheer luck, we were there on July 11th, the day of the full sun alignment. We positioned ourselves on the corner of Madison and 34th (we were told to find one of the wider cross streets, which 34th is) and so, after a few drinks at the Morgan Museum’s happy hour, we joined a crowd of dozens and rushed to the center of the street every time the light turned red to grab our photos and soak in the crimson glow reflecting off the steel and glass canyon.

No filters have been applied to the photos in this post, nor have any lighting or saturation adjustments been applied. Seriously. And to make it a little more unbelievable, I’ll add that I took these shots with Kristin’s waterproof compact camera, the PowerShot D20

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29 April, 2014

Hills, Headwinds, and a How-d’ye-do

Hills, headwinds, and hearing “Howdy” everywhere you go aren’t the first things that come to mind when thinking about North Dakota. As part of the Great Plains, we expected pancake flat roads, mostly tailwinds — we were headed East — and lots of not-so-friendly truckers in town for the recent oil boom. Boy were we (and the people who warned us) wrong on all accounts.

During our planning, we figured that after we left the Pacific Northwest and the Cascades, and crossed the Continental Divide, that we would be rolling along doing 80 to 90 miles a day cruising flat roads with a tailwind. We never anticipated having a 64 mile day with 3000 feet of climbing, nor did we imagine racking up between 1000-2000 feet of climbing nearly every other day. Now, we weren’t grinding up any mountains like in the Pacific Northwest; however, we were pedaling up and over hill after hill after hill. Some were small enough to literally roll over before rolling down the other side, while others required some small-ring pedaling, but nothing like those mountain passes behind us. Let me assure you that all those rollers add up over the miles.

We rode our steel horses across the badlands of western North Dakota.

We rode our steel horses across the badlands of western North Dakota.

We knew there would be wind in the Great Plains, but we didn’t expect it to be changing directions so frequently nor the strength. It seemed that the wind was nearly always blowing, which regardless of tailwind or headwind will gradually cause a non-native to go insane. When camping or taking a break, we needed to make sure we didn’t leave anything light enough to blow away (gloves, hats, napkins, plates, bags, etc.) unweighted. Fortunately, we didn’t lose anything, but had to chase a few plates and plastic bags. When we were cycling, a tailwind allowed us to go 20 mph with no effort but the headwind nearly brought us to a halt. Standing and grinding into gusts of wind on a flat road at 4 mph is demoralizing. We had to cut two days short due to intense headwinds because the next town was unreachable. We had one day that took four hours to go 28 miles and another over eight hours to go 55 miles. As comparison, a tailwind a few days earlier allowed us to pedal for just over three and a half hours and go 50 miles. What a difference!

Two days of camping with the bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park wasn't enough to dull the excitement of seeing the giant beasts.

Two days of camping with the bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park wasn’t enough to dull the excitement of seeing the giant beasts.

The little girl of our hosts in Richardton challenged us to a game of Candyland.

The little girl of our hosts in Richardton challenged us to a game of Candyland.

Throughout our travels leading up to North Dakota, we were warned about all the oil worker transplants and told to be wary of the rude truck drivers and their huge trucks that would be on the roads. We rode on everything from small country roads to two lane highways to Interstate 94 for a few miles and ran into nothing but the most courteous and friendly drivers. Everyone who drove past us waved and most people moved all the way left to the next lane to give us tons of space (which freaked Doug out, as they would even do this when cresting a blind hill). We also spent a few evenings in bars and with Warm Showers hosts. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming. It is particularly interesting to hear residents’ thoughts on the recent oil boom in the area as well as learning about local lifestyle. I know a lot more about raising, branding, and selling cattle now than I ever did before. Watch out! We are learning about things in a way that many do not have the opportunity to. Another surprise was seeing the gorgeous Assumption Abbey rise up from the plains as we approached the little town of Richardton. One of the Benedictine monks gave us a tour of the church the next morning after breakfast with our Warm Showers hosts.

Eastern ND has a surprising number of ponds and lakes. There were areas that looked a lot like the southeast coast or even Cape May county, NJ.

Eastern ND has a surprising number of ponds and lakes. There were areas that looked a lot like the southeast coast or even Cape May county, NJ.

We battled a 40mph headwind for 56 miles (it took over 8 hours) and then took refuge from approaching storms under a picnic shelter  in a county park.

We battled a 40mph headwind for 56 miles (it took over 8 hours) and then took refuge from approaching storms under a picnic shelter in a county park.

So, North Dakota has surprised us in many ways; some pleasantly and others not so much (some of the cafes would do well to invest in spices). We’ll miss the wonderful hospitality but will gladly say goodbye to those winds as we reenter the woods in northern Minnesota and begin our northeasterly trek towards Canada.

We headed straight to the Wurst Bier Hall in Fargo for dinner and drinks after completing our trek across the Great Plains.

We headed straight to the Wurst Bier Hall in Fargo for dinner and drinks after completing our trek across the Great Plains. Kristin ordered the Midwest is Best flight while Doug had the Hop Head flight.

Special Thanks: In addition to our friendly Warm Showers hosts, we want to give a special thanks to Erik and Stephanie Alston for introducing us to their hospitable friends Doug and Kristina and Kelly and Dale; we also want to thank our college friend Bob Iasillo for using his hotel loyalty points to put us up for the night in Fargo; and also want to thank Tyler, the beer-guzzling, laugh-out-loud funny “Brian Donahue of Fargo” for picking up our tab at the Wurst Bier Hall. You totally didn’t need to do that, but we appreciate it.