Saturday, June 29, 2013

Day 9 - Edessa orchard camp to Demir Hasar

The morning ride was a dream, following a quiet road with a nice surface along the perimeter of a lake. There were fruit trees and fruit pickers and the sun was shining. It felt like it was worth the 650kms it took to get to this place just to ride this road.

We crossed out of Greece and into Macedonia just after lunch, stopped for a drink and met a friendly guy named Petar, who was out for a bike ride with his father. He rode with us into the town of Bitola and showed us around, sharing little tidbits about the town history and his life there.

We learned that the prehistory dates back to the copper age, but that most of the important settlements came with the bizantines. We learned that the nice buildings in the city centre were built by the Jews, but that there weren't any Jews there anymore since they were taken away during the war. We learned that Petar worked for a german company that makes cables and that the company had 12 factories around the world, but it doesn't have one in Australia.

As Petar rode with us to the Bitola city limit (to ensure that we didn't get lost on our way out), he mentioned that the town that we were going to (Demir Hasar) had very little except for a mental institution. He warned us that there would be a lot of people walking around in pajamas. Any apprehension this may have caused us was outweighed by curiosity, and we were quickly on our way to check it out.

Though we had planned to camp, we opted for a hotel since it was the equivalent of 10 euros per person per night (including breakfast) and we had just finished riding 25kms with visions of zombie psychiatric patients in pajamas wandering the area at all hours for the night.

Among the dessert options at our hotel is "sexy salad". The two young boys who seem to have responsibility for the establishment this evening seem to be enjoying the opportunity to practice english, though they have not yet been able to explain what "sexy salad" is. I think that the only solution is to try it.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Day 8 - Thessoloniki to Edessa orchard camp (95km)

Having talked about it for the first week and done nothing, we decided that it was important for us to finally find a protective measure for the dogs. Carrie remembered that one of our friends in Africa had used a special whistle that blew at some kind of frequency that dogs find annoying. He said worked very well. We decided that it would be worth a try.

We stopped at a roadside pet shop that had a lot of birds in it (that wasn't why we stopped there, it's just some information about the shop). Our lack of Greek language skills meant that Carrie and I had to resort to role playing to communicate our need...we tried a few things before getting to the scenario of a cyclist being chased by a dog and an imaginary whistle that made the dog go away. While it is a normal situation for us by now, it was understandably a bit unusual for our new friends.

I am fairly certain that they did not understand anything that we were saying or acting, but one of them smiled and laughed and then handed us an apricot.


We stopped in Edessa for more repairs on Carrie's bike and met another bike tourist, Matthijs. He came down from Belgium on a raised recumbent and shared some information about the road ahead. He was planning to make it down to Thessaloniki and then head back to Belgium via eastern europe.


Tonight is easily one of the best so far. We are bush camping in a small orchard with a stream on one side and a flat spot that was cleared as though to make room just for us. Dinner is a kilo of cherries that a shop owner gave us for free while we were standing on the sidewalk outside his shop and looking at the map. There are fireflies around floating around our tent, flashing on and off and on and off. It is magic!

Day 7 - Thessaloniki rest day

After 6 days of riding, covering 600km, we figured that Thessaloniki would be a good place for a rest day. First task: bike shop. Carrie had some more work that needed to be done and we had the sense that there would be another good bike shop for a while.

The bike shop owner, Kostas, was (* is *) the heart of the downtown cycling community. He had been a serious contender to represent Greece in mountain biking at the 2002 Olympics in Athens. He founded a bicycle advocacy group in the city, organizing rides and providing a voice for local cyclists. He took young cyclists out in the afternoon to develop mountain biking skills.

Kostas has committed himself completely to developing a vibrant bicycle culture in Thessoliniki and he reminded me of some great people that I know in the Calgary cycling community.

He generously squeezed in our emergency repairs just before he closed up shop to take some kids out for a ride. And his hospitality did not end there. We met up later for dinner later (along with a friend of his) to enjoy the Thessaloniki night life. This included some rounds of Tsipouri, which is one of those drinks that it celebrated more for its alcohol content than for its taste.

We had planned to leave the city at 5am to beat the heat; however, our 2am return home might interfere with that!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Day 6 - Hippie Camp to Thessaloniki (154km)

Escaping the heat, we took refuge under some trees and met three cyclists heading in the same direction as us. They were from Serbia and were on a 10-day trip to an important Bizantine monestary. We rode together for a few hours with our Serbian biker gang, stopping every 10kms for some shade, which allowed for plenty of conversation.

It is really interesting to observe personalities and relationship dynamics when people are travelling. Especially when they are travelling by bicycle. I think that traits ad power dynamics get exaggerated somehow - or maybe they just become more visible because there seems no point in moderating one's behaviour in these situations - it's better to just be real.

The 'main' guy in the gang spoke very good english and was very curious and chatty. He was full of information and stories and we felt that we could have talked all day. I imagine that he was not the one who had the idea to do the trip in the first place, but he was the one who made it happen.

The 'second' guy spoke some english, but not enough to express everything that he wanted to say. He was in charge of navigation and the other two relied completely on him for this task. He shared some helpful details on which roads to take in Macedonia and Albania. He was really excited about our adventure and seemed to want to come along for the ride. I imagine that he was the one who

The 'third' guy was quiet and more serious, though he had a cool handlebar mustache that suggested there was a funny guy somewhere below the surface. He seemed anxious to keep moving every time that we stopped. I imagine that he was the guy who made sure the group stayed on schedule and out of trouble.


We ended the day in Thessaloniki, taking a 25 euro room at an old, but kind of charming hotel. The owner is a large man with a deep, deep voice and a slow laugh that sounds a bit like a frog, but is so genuine that it makes you want to laugh with him. When he heard what we were doing with our bicycles, he let out a slow chuckle and said 'We don't have girls like you yet in Greece'.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Day 5 - Xanthi to Hippie Beach Camp (75km)

We lightened our bags today, sending a few kilos of unnecessary items home (ex. my punctured sleeping mat, some of Carrie's five pairs of underwear). Xanthi was a small enough town that Greek was the only language option at the Post Office, so I had a friendly charades-style interaction with the woman behind the counter. At one point she slapped my face (in the most kind and motherly way). It was the sort of thing you'd see in a movie and it was at this point that I really felt that I was in Greece.

The sun and heat picked up around 9am. We had to stop a lot for shade and hydration, visiting sleepy inland towns and pieces of Greece that are probably not on the usual tourist itinerary, but nevertheless nice to roll through. It seems that even the people (or the kids who do the graffiti) in the towns have a sense of humour about the character of their towns.

When we reached the coast, it was a different story. We saw many hotels and there were restaurants that had huge seating capacity but no patrons. We realized that we haven't really seen any obvious tourists here. It feels as though they are ready for the masses - big roads, big restaurants - but there is only us. I suppose that this is one face of the crisis.

We found a campground along the beach, surrounded inland by fruit growing land. Secluded and calm, yet not too far from a tourist town. We were not alone at the camp, but we were the only tenters. All of the others seemed to be permanent trailers or shacks. In the town near our camp we found a small bridge. The water was packed with little turtles. It was so nice!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Day 4 - Alexandropolis to Xanthi (100km)

The highways here a cyclists paradise, brand new, smooth pavement with a superwide shoulder and very little traffic (thank you EU infrastructure fund!).

We planned to ride for an hour or so before breakfast, to get some momentum and a few miles in before the heat started. Sounds like a great plan, eh? Well, 'an hour or so' turned into three, as we were on a main highway with no meaningful stops to speak of, part of which was on a highway with large trucks, under some seriously intense Greek sun.

It created the sort of tension that could bust up even the most beautiful of friendships. Fortunately, I'm with Carrie. We've done a lot together. We will find a way. On the bright side, it offered us an opportunity to air a few issues and to establish a communication approach that will help us to make the distance to Paris. By the end of the day, we could almost already laugh about it.


I never expected my finance and statistics classes would be useful for bicycle touring in Greece. They are proving invaluable. It turns out that I understand at least enough of the greek alphabet to allow me to make sense of the road signs (though, in retrospect, I probably would have benefited from applying myself more to my derivatives courses). Carrie studied maths in uni. I think she has an advantage over me on this one.


We finished the day in the inland town of Xanthi. It is a really vibrant town, with zero tourist activity. Kids playing in the park near the main square, riding bicycles and laughing. Adults of every age walking and talking and drinking iced coffee (which is everywhere here). It's a Sunday night and the vibe was unbelievable. The night life is just picking up, but its time for us to head to bed.

Day 3 - Tekirdag to Alexandropoli (157km)

We passed in to Greece today!

156km of mostly smooth, wide shouldered highway. There is not much to complain about here...except, perhaps, the dogs (though they were also an issue in Turkey). In my opinion, these are the biggest nuisance and the biggest danger on the road.

We discovered that one reliable/effective approach to manage dogs is to slow down to a pedestrian pace so that the dog finds you uninteresting. We call this our * cloak of invisibility * strategy.

Ok dog...there is nothing to see here.

It can be hard to hold your nerve when large dogs run up to you, barking and showing their teeth. But, it seems to work (as long as their tails are wagging). I'm not saying that its easy or perfect (I know there are some situations in which this will not work) and it can take a lot of courage and patience. I really learned that this afternoon.

Carrie had been riding about 20 meters ahead of me, just enough distance to allow four (large and very energetic) dogs to get up from their napping spots and out on the street in time for my arrival. They were desperate for something to chase.

I slowed down, but this was not enough. My cloak of invisibility was busted. I stopped. Surrounded by four barking dogs...trying not to show my fear. I have learned to coach myself to do a lot of things - not being scared is something that I'm still working on.

The 23 minutes that it took for them to get bored and go back to their napping spots (and allow me to make my getaway) felt like an eternity. A lot of very bad things pass through my mind during this time. But, eventually it paid off and I made a dash for it.


Rolling in to Alexandropoli, we met two other bicycle tourists. They were moving in the opposite direction, en route from the UK to Australia. That's going to be a long journey. We were actually able to have a conversation with them - something a little deeper than our last journey, which was with a japanese cyclist as we reached the edge of Istanbul. The conversation with the Japanese cyclist was rather brief on account of the traffic and a language barrier. It went something like this:


New Zealand!


And that was it. The brits, on the other hand, told us about their adventures so far and tips for the road. One story included a man walking from France to Israel, solo. I'm not a walker, but that would be an amazing journey. Another story related to squatting in a farm in Bosnia and getting evacuated at gun point. I think we will avoid pirate camping in the Balkans. Until then, Greece seems like a nice place to enjoy the outdoors and we have found a nice spot at a municipal campground to enjoy the stars and put our feet up after a long day.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Day 2 - Silivri to Tekirdag (65km)

Though we were up and ready early, pouring rain and thunder storms compelled us to delay our departure. Eventually we lost hope and decided to go anyway, with lowered expectations for the distance today.

While we were packing our bikes to go, Carrie noticed that she had a flat in the front. I noticed that she had some severe tire damage in the back. It was time to see the friends that we made the night before at the bike shop. They were incredibly helpful an generous. And, when we finally hit the road, there was a break in the rain.

Our bike shop friend left us with one google translated message 'Cycling is a way of life, not a hobby'. I couldn't agree more.


I don't like to say it, but the fact is that it IS different touring as a woman. Sexual harassment (a term that has been used so much and in so many contexts as to render it inadequate to express the severity of its impact) is one of the disadvantages that we face (regardless of the country). It's really a shame; so many men that we have met here in Turkey been extremely warm and friendly.

But, there have been a few exceptions and that's all it takes to start to spoil a moment. There are times when we get a predatory glare or a comment that, although neither of us understands turkish, lead us to feel like we are seen as two travelling prostitutes (which, by the way, would probably be a very successful business down here, based on our experience).

Touring as a woman also has its advantages. Among our experiences today, 1) a car full of women and daughters dressed in burquas shouting and waving at us, and 2) a little girl getting an ice cream, turning around and noticing us and getting her dad to take a photo.


Everyone asks us where we are from. Sometimes I say Canada, Sometimes Carrie says New Zealand. The problem is that nobody knows where New Zealand is. Nobody. So, sometimes she just says Australia. Or America. It's a pity, considering the thousands of kiwis who defended Turkey during Ottoman rule.


Carrie went into a store to buy a snack. She emerged with something in each hand (one for me!). It looked like a local dessert of some sort. Or maybe cheese. It was a culinary experiment (which, so far, in Turkey has worked out extremely well. Carrie took a bite. It turned out to be butter. This one didn't work out so well, but we are going to keep trying for adventure.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Day 1 - Istanbul to Silivri

Waking with the 4h30 prayer call, as we had done so many times before in Egypt and Sudan, Carrie and I packed our bags in preparation for a sunrise departure from Istanbul. We had heard that the city was difficult to navigate on a bicycle and we wanted to do it with as little traffic as possible, even if that meant doing it on only a couple of hours of sleep.

We went back to Taksim as a starting point for the journey, then began the long ride out. And, long it was. Istanbul is *not* a city for cyclists. There are few bikes, no space for cyclists on the road, and many, many obstacles (ultra-high curbs, damaged sidewalks, broken glass, razor wire).

We rode all day through dense urban sprawl, never seeming to exit the city (though, according to the map, we made it through several along the way). It took us 12 hours to cover the 85km of road leading to the oceanside town of Silivri. Much of day was spent walking/lifting our loaded bikes through unrideable stretches out of the city, but some of it was spent on brief encounters with people, which made it a great day. A few of my favourite encounters included:

1. A 22-year old Uzbek selling coffee from his van near the sea. He spoke no english, but he was so excited to meet us that he ran to find a friend who could write down his name, origin, email address, phone number, and facebook name on a piece of paper, which he handed to us as we left.

2. Just a few kilometres later, Carrie noticed some balloons and broken bottles that were suspended by wood and string just beside the sea. It looked like there had been a some kind of celebration. We went over to check it out and three guys with a couple of pellet rifles approached us. It was a shooting game. Of course, we stopped and played.

3. We stopped and asked for directions from a security guard. The guy was so committed to helping us find our way that he walked with us for about 1km to make sure that we got to the correct turn off.

4. We passed a man at the side of the road who was making gravestones. He waved us over and wanted to take a picture with us. Though there was no language overlap, he was able to help direct us to take a quiet road paralleling the highway. Riding became a lot nicer after that.

5. We stopped for coffee and a man in a suit sat down beside us. He had just come from a job interview. We chatted about life and experiences for a while. He was positive, but a bit frustrated. He needed this job. The conversation was interrupted by a telephone call. His face lit up and we learned that he got the job! High fives all around. It was nice to share this moment with him.

6. We walked into a bike shop and asked if there was a place nearby where we could camp. The three bike shop guys didn't speak english, but they had a computer and internet access and were friendly and helpful (as bike shop guys usually are). Google served as our translator. The conversation went a bit like this:

'Camping beach possible'


'6-7 km after'

(Not great. By this time, it was 8pm by this time and we were ready to settle for the night)

'First lady camp problem'

(Not so good. We are accustomed to doing things that girls are not supposed to do, and our experience today suggested that this is a very safe and warm place, but there was something about his expression that led us to feel that this was not the time to push things...this time.)

Day 0 - Istanbul

We found a quiet apartment at which to stay, about one kilometer away from Taksim Square. When we arrived near our apartment around 2am, there was an uncomfortable quality in the air; remnants of the gas bombs that had been deployed just a few hours earlier.

We met a local girl who had been at the square earlier. Though it was late and she was very tired, she stayed up and chatted with us for some time about her experience over the last two weeks. She was friendly and open, and not at all imposing or preachy. She was educated and professionally successful. She was not the typical hippie type that comes to my mind when I think of people who 'occupy'.

Although her conviction gave the impression that she could have been there from the start, she did not, in fact, get involved until a number of days after the conflict began. Although she had been frustrated with the character of and the manner in which many changes had been imposed by the regime, it was the excessive force that had been imposed against the protesters in Gezi that was, for her, the last straw. It was this that drew her out to express her solidarity with the people and her support for a more democratic process. She'd spent a night in the hospital already last week, but that seemed to fuel her motivation to continue (as did the fact that one of her friends is still there).

I know very little of the country or the politics and I am in no position to make judgement or take a side; however, I was grateful to have started my time here hearing one very personal perspective on the situation.


After a brief sleep, we assembled our bicycles and then set out in search of the laundry list of items that we had forgotten to pack. Because neither Carrie nor I are particularly good with structure, we didn't have a map or a real plan, just a list. We started walking, popping into stores here and there, getting distracted by anything and everything (mostly food related) and not making much progress on the to do list.

We eventually found ourselves on a wide pedestrian street with many stores and side streets with cute restaurants. This seemed to be 'the place to be'. Ha, who needs a map!

Walking down the main pedestrian street, we could have been anywhere. Families. Street musicians with pan flutes from the andes. Kebab shops and postcard shops.

But there were a few peculiarities:
1. Regular street pedestrians (young and old) prepared with face masks and goggles around their necks. Street vendors selling the same.
2. Graffiti *everywhere*; in stark contrast to the feeling of modernity and affluence that a street filled with western shops like Sephora, the Gap and Starbucks, some of which were boarded up.

But the vibe was light and full of energy. We eventually made our way to the square, unable to hold back our curiosity. The square itself seemed relatively empty, except for teams of police and large vehicles surrounding a political monument and a government building. In the far corner, there was a group of protesters chanting and waving flags with various letters and colours. We walked over to see more.

It was not a massive group protesters, it looked to be maybe 100. There was there was a flow of pedestrian traffic on either side of the protesters, moving in both directions. We decided to go in and see what was behind. What we found was Gezi Park, filled with trees and people and tents. It was incredible to see so many people.

It is a pity that all of the images that I've seen of the conflict have managed to miss showing an areal shot of Gezi Park. Most of the pictures that I've seen on the internet show the square, the masses of people at the moment when they gather in the square, and then micro shots of the conflict with police. It never give a full impression of just how many people there are, on a constant basis, in Gezi Park.

It was the police on one side, protecting the symbols of their strength (the monument and the government building) and the people on the other side, protecting the symbol of their strength (the trees and the natural public space).

Forgetting completely about our 'to do' list, we found a spot nearby for dinner and took things in. We were joined by the friend that we made last night and we spent a few hours together, sharing stories and thoughts about life.

Night came, and we moved back to the square, where someone had wheeled in a grand piano. He began playing and people gathered. It was such a nice moment, everyone singing along together (sometimes to songs that I couldn't understand).

We leave in only a few hours and are still not packed, but we will figure that out in the morning.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Monkeying around

Our plan to pick up crocodile and dalmatian costumes fell apart as quickly as the plan to get them was made, but our appointment with Bastiaan was still on and we were determined to do it in style. We found a small costume shop just a few blocks from the train station and settled on dressing as hairy apes.

Sometimes Plan B turns out better than Plan A.

Undetered by the arrival of two mute primates at his reception, Bastiaan welcomed us in to his office and offered us a drink. We declined. Although we were severely thirsty, it didn't work well with the masks.

Carrie grabbed a marker and began drawing on a white board. One circle in the top left hand corner that she labelled 'start'. Another circle at the bottom right hand corner that she labelled 'end'. Bastiaan nodded and filled the space in between with some symbols. He then smiled, handed us a card and said he would send us an invoice.

There are not many people who would play along like this, and not many who would drop everything and take the afternoon off to welcome surprise visitors to his home. But Bastiaan is special. He's the kind of person worth making up a fake appointment, taking a train from Paris and dressing up as an ape for.

On a separate note, it was interesting to spend time with Carrie in a place like Utrecht. It's an idyllic town, with all of the most charming characteristics of Amsterdam and none of the crowds and tourist shops. And it is safe, clean, easy. It's a big contrast to the world that she has been watching (and desperately trying to change) during the last two years in South Africa. Everything seems perfect.

She was telling me a story over lunch about an organization near Cape Town that is trying to improve access to toilets in the townships, with a goal of reducing the distance for anyone to reach a toilet to less than 400 meters. It seems obvious that this is a good idea just in terms of the nuisance of having to walk so far for a basic necessity. But, it's not just about the nuisance. Taking a walk like that in the middle of the night comes with the risk of rape, robbery and being attacked by dogs.

It's the kind of issue that can get easily reduced to simple descriptive terms like 'poverty' or 'sanitation challenges'. But, what does that even mean to anyone? It's not just that you can't afford school supplies or electricity or whatever. When you think about the actual implications of the situation on the day-to-day livelihoods of people stuck in it, it's pretty heavy.

I think that Carrie feels that this trip will be a chance to take a break from the harsh social issues of South Africa. Perhaps it will be. Or perhaps it will just reinforce that these problems exist everywhere.

On the one hand, it would seem that moving west from Istanbul, places should become progressively more socially and economically developed, until we reach Paris, the pinnacle of socio-economic development.

On the other hand, when I think of Paris, I can't help but think of the families living on the street in front of my apartment. The woman and three children (who are, I would estimate, between 4 and 10 years old) who spend their entire days and nights in a phone booth on the corner. And the other family, with two young kids, living on the vent beside the Hippopotamus restaurant. There are many more families across the street. And then there is the issue of the suburbs.

If Paris is a model of socio-economic development, and we are starting from some less developed place, this journey certainly won't be a break from social issues. But it will be an adventure, and that's what we came for.

Coming out of retirement, again.

Tanzania - Serbia - Montenegro - Germany - Switzerland - UK - Tunisia - Canada - US - France. A few things have happened since I last wrote - and I've allowed the details of my adventures slip away unwritten. I'm back to the keyboard now because I'm determined not to let this next one get away.

I'm on a high speed train to Amsterdam to meet up with Carrie. She is flying in from South Africa, where she has been living since we arrived there on our bicycles two years ago.

We decided that it was high time to get rolling together again.

We've got our bikes, our passports, and two one way tickets to Istanbul. The plan (if you can call it that) is to ride west and north, until we reach Paris. I have a map of "the balkans" at a scale of 1:2000000, which renders it more useful for dreaming than for navigating. We'll figure it out as we go along. The flight leaves tonight and the pedals will start spinning on Thursday.

In the meantime, we will have about 9 hours in Amsterdam/Utrecht to make a surprise visit to our good friend, Bastiaan. We've made an appointment at his office under some fake names and will arrive dressed as a crocodile and a dalmation. We want to see how long it takes him to figure out who we are. Oddly, this seems to have been better planned than the next part of our adventure.