Jun 27, 2010

Packed up and ready to go

The girls on the wheels are currently advancing on separate tracks towards the North, one starting from the hot South and the other from the mild North East. Figuring out the logistics for getting to Norway with fully loaded bikes and limited budgets was not an easy task. However, a bit of brain cracking combined with loads of patience, as usual, worked their magic and the cycling towards "up there, where the sun never sets" should start, as scheduled, on the 1st of July. Good luck to us (we need it)!

Jun 20, 2010

All-nighters in the airports

Back in Estonia - sleepy and confused by the sun that takes hours to set

As I had prepared well for a long lonely stay in the airport, it was only logical that I met by chance the Latvian girl Lasma already before the first check-in. We didn't have much chance to hang out after a first wee while during our year in Montpellier and here comes life, offering us the next great opportunity on a silver plate. We took the same sequence of planes home. This week-end sounds good from the start!

I decided against leaving my bags in the locker and going to discover the charms of Charleroi. Instead, I positioned myself between 4 huge rucksacks on a chair in front of the café, to sit back, relax and enjoy. And enjoy I did. 17 hours of overnight waiting as a concious choice can be very interesting.

As the planned entertainment, I was trying to get over and done with the 900g War & Peace that I have been reading for more than a year. I've been noting down the paragraphs I like and today I found this one: Pierre's madness simply meant that he didn't wait, as in days gone by, for people to show personal qualities, what he might call virtues, before loving them. With his heart overflowing with love he loved people for no reason at all, and then had no trouble discovering many a sound reason that made them worth loving.

Whilst the sky lights change from dark rainy gray to sunshine blue to sunset yellow to streetlight orange to clear blue sunrise and back to dark rainy gray, ...

... Chinese schoolgirls giggle over anime on my left and Japanese schoolboys snore away on my right;

... conversations in all kinds of languages swirl around me. I hear Estonian but choose not to react;

... a dude with a familiar accent (Polish?) walks to me and asks the results of the most recent football match - can't help you, sorry;

... children climb up and down their parents;

... a wrinkly gray-haired man strokes the knee of a girl seemingly 30 years younger than him. I find it strange and stare. The older woman sipping her beer next to them seems to think the same, or maybe she just follows the fireline starting from my eyes. She is even funnier to watch;

... the fat man guided by his belly wobbles past several times;

... a big guy with red hoody stops to read the title of my book and shrugs to say i'm impressed! to the universe in general, while I stand nearby, having another coffee and stretching my legs.

... at some point during the morning, surfers arrive. The one who's dragging his surfing board that is packed up in bubble wrap and carton, back and forth in the corridor, gets thirsty looks from us two girls who see it as the perfect bed.

Many people get a beer as their in-between flights drink. The most interesting specimens get more than a beer to fill up those long waiting hours. I take a note of a french-speaking monsieur - quite round-footed already - heartily shaking hands with two Brits. I forget about them all until 3 hours later the monsieur is escorted somewhere to the far right by rather amused policemen who give directions as they go: "Allez-y, on va prendre un petit café!". The Brits continue. I prefer coffee, especially when I'm alone, have to stay awake 13 more hours and can't go to toilet for another 7 hours without dragging all the 60 kilos of luggage with me.

I'm being people-watched too. Some of them seem to enjoy it as a good pastime just like me, some of them are more interested, some even get the fifth, seventh or eleventh look back. Some of them people-stare. A typical darker-toned sir walks past the 3rd or the 4th time, preying my eyes for the second look. To my relief, a teenage boy is always straggling behind him (younger brother? son?). I practice the real meaning of the phrase she wouldn't give him a second look, making every effort to put on my best bored-to-death impression.

One of the Japanese schoolboys takes a long time to plug his laptop into the socket behind my chair. I start wondering if he is reading the text on my screen and whether or not he would be offended by it, considering that the two of them seem to be speaking American English, could be anything between 19 and 35 years old and are probably not even remotely connected to Japan. The Chinese girls next to me turn out to be Korean CouchSurfers, but the drunken Brits are still not Estonians, even though they shout the name of this country far too many times.

4 more hours to go and I still don't feel like sleeping, neither am I bored. It is like a huge international party with all those young people nodding off in the corners, saying Hi! to each other and laughing together when someone farts really loud in their sleep.

One year ago I slept under those same benches, guarded by Latvian friends that I had made earlier in the airport bus. Seems a bit like a dèja vu and I'd be happy to do it again!

Jun 8, 2010

Montpellier-Maastricht: hitch-biking

Day 8: Bored to death

On the eight day of journey, the road started offering some serious climbing again. I was pedalling up and down the hills in numbing heat and without the compensating vista or fast downhills of the mountains. To be completely honest, after the first 10km I found a village with a nice restaurant, where I sat for too many hours, recharging my own batteries, while also slurping their electricity and internet to feed my little electronic helpers. The gourmet section of my trip started with a demisalad the size of a football, decorated with salmon and potatos. Do I need to say it out loud that I suddenly found myself in love with the region(al specialities)?

Reluctantly, in the late afternoon, I peeled myself off their couch and cycled on, trying to pick the roads, that offer potentially interesting views on hilltops and cooling shades in the valleys. My expectations about hilltops were met, while the molten tar on the roads kept my speed down. The shadows did not exist.

Aha, that's where they grow food for the hungry bikers! was the only phrase crossing my mind whenever I opened my eyes to look for the marvels of the landscape. The countless cows to whom I spoke in cat language - because it is the only animal language I know - gave me compassionate looks and chomped on. I couldn't help but stop for another lunch break in a lovely tiny village called Saint-Père. Before climbing on to the next hilltop, I sat long time on cool church steps and delighted in beautiful choir music coming from the inside. Then I cycled through Avallon, hoping to meet druids and elves and misty mysteries, but I was deceived once again.

I raised my thumbs a few times this evening, after the bigger hotter half of the sun had set. It was late and I wasn't too convinced that it would work. Of course, it didn't. I pedalled on in cool evening air, aiming to find the only river noted on the map in 30km radius. I couldn't imagine going to sleep without washing off the sticky film that covered me from head to toe. When I stopped a good hour before the nightfall, refusing to continue on, it wasn't because I had found a nice place to stay (I hadn't). I stopped, because there was no more hope of reaching another body of water in near future. The "river" was "deep" enough to cover my ankles and generally very disappointing. I went to sleep on a random field, determined to leave this place as early in the morning as possible.

Kilometer-counter said "73".

Day 9: Patience, young Padawan, patience...

Everybody knows that sometimes, very often indeed, one must do things one really doesn't want to do. Because this is life and life is hard. A sudden sense of freedom arrives when you realize that, actually, you don't! You don't need to to things that you really-really-really do not want to do. Doing what you want is not always an easy way out. Going with the flow takes much less effort than struggling against it or swimming to the shore, but the results can be oh-so-satisfying!

This morning, I packed my bags fast and early (I call 9:20 "early"), left without breakfast, positioned myself in a shadow next to the road, half way uphill, told myself "Patience, now...", and raised my thumb with fresh confidence. I didn't have to wait long for the first car to stop. Then I helpfully offered to take my bike into small bits, and off we went. A similar procedure was applied about 6 times over the day. Seeing those dreadful endless fields fly past faster than ever filled me with content over the decision I had made about accelerating my movement.

It was a very enjoyable day indeed. First, we had a lunch stop in a fancy road-side restaurant with a friendly French monsieur. I can now say, that I have eaten some famous french specialities I never dared to try before. The snails cooked in garlic butter is definitely my new favorite entrée. In the evening, we stopped for coffee and cakes in an elaborate Belgian restaurant with a nice Dutch lady.

As a perfect ending for the day, my bike flew from Liège to Maastricht so lightly, that I had to keep checking whether my luggage is still attatched! Finally, I was welcomed by a friendly face on the steps of a squat after a successful day trip of 580km of hitch-hiking and 27km of biking.

Total distance cycled: 622km;
Total time cycled: 41h50min;
Total elevation gain: 5600m.

Jun 5, 2010

Montpellier-Maastricht: the rolling hills

Day 7: A beautiful place on earth

At the moment, 70km a day is a comfortable pace and anything over that I call "sport", because I must start making a concious effort to pedal on. Today, I did 95km on the roads, rolling up and down the hills a bit less gently than yesterday. I have escaped the traffic but the agricultural scenery is offering no more entertainment than the occasional pig-faced cow here and a roadkill there... In the burning sun with ever-present thirst, I dream about finding a place to swim. I cross the Loire and several small muddy rivers, but come across no beaches. I am not willing to go searching for them either.

Finally I arrive at the most magnificent place - exactly what I've been dreaming of for so many kilometres! An (artificial?) lake called Étang de Baye that somehow reminds me of Estonia. I decide not to go any further and instead enjoy my time here, although there's still 1.5 hours of perfectly bikable daylight time left and usually I don't stop before it gets dark.

I swim topless (why? well... why not? it's a good excuse to cross one more superfluous item off the equipment list), to the amazement of two elderly tourist couples, and wash off about 2/3 of my new dark tan. The sun slowly disappears behind the horizon, and I sit listening to the voices of nature. I fall asleep on the wooden picnic table, keeping one eye open to watch the stars, and wake up at sunrise for a short while, because all the birds in the world have apparently burst into song at once. What a nice night :)

In the morning, I take my time to get ready. I am perfectly willing to stay here another day, but it is not the right time and trip for enjoying myself too much. Instead, I make plans, wondering how to bend some rules in order to make the rest of the road as pleasant as this place here.

Montpellier-Maastricht: the flatlands

Day 6: The gently rolling hills...

...and the North wind that has something personal against me.

No mountains = pleasant at first, but the novelty soon wears off. Yes, (the skin of) my arse hurts and my shoulders are sore, but I no longer have to give myself any motivational talks to keep pedalling. Rather it seems like a job that simply has to be done. I just keep going from dawn till dusk, stopping once in a while to buy maps, a drink or a snack and sometimes even cook (...what was that, I hear you say?!!). Yes, cook. "Just add water and wait for 5 minutes" type cooking. I stocked up on dry soups and camping food on my rest day, and my appetite is back, because now the physical effort is not strong enough to take it away.

Before starting this trip I estimated that the part until Clermont-Ferrand would be physically tough and after that - mentally. I was right.

Flatlands mean heavy traffic and as much as I like the company of other people, I am not such a great fan of sharing my road with crowds constantly rushing past in all kinds of bigger-badder-faster vehicles than the one I have. It should be better tomorrow when I get off of the infinitely flat and straight National, heading to Moulins.

Then, sometimes I get lost. The third award for the "brightest" moment of Day 4 went to me losing my freshly bought map of Auvergne. I refuse to buy another one. Getting out of the city and the industrial zone this morning took me two hours, during which I managed to edge about 8km towards the North and cycle around 30km in total. There was a moment when I found myself standing above the Michelin testing ground, looking down and briefly toying with the idea of using their tracks to escape the monotonous, noisy highway.

Total of the day: 109km.

I slept next to this small lake, dirty and sweaty as I was. Swimming was forbidden... perhaps due to its unusually steep incline?

Jun 3, 2010

Montpellier-Maastricht: ... and still climbing on the Massif Central

Day 4: Secret language of a hungry brain

As I woke up in the morning, I glanced at my always scarce water reserves, and decided that there's almost a big enough drop of water left to rinse off most of the toothpaste after brushing my teeth. It was the perfect excuse to skip cooking again and finish the leftovers of pumpernickel with the fresh goats' cheese I got from a roadside fromagerie in the mountains.

One thing that I must learn to do right on this trip is eating: I seem to be constantly snacking, especially on long uphills, and this part is all okay. I sometimes get hungry and plan on making a meal in the evening, but when I finally stop to camp, I am always too tired to bother with it. However, once a day I literally talk myself into making the effort. For example, last evening I had hot chocolate and instant mashed potatos. It cannot exactly be considered a nutritious meal, unlike the freeze-dried omelette and vanilla pudding stowed away somewhere in my luggage, but ...

... to transform the high-tech, no-effort expedition mix into an omelette, I have to do all of the following:

1. get it out from the bag that is uncomfortable to open;
2. open the package and pour the contents in the pot;
3. add 185ml of water;
4. fry it.

Can it get any more complicated? So far I am mostly eating only food with instructions that do not stretch beyond "rip here to open" or "just add water". Oranges, apples, oats and brick of dates fit into the easy list.

Day 4 welcomed me with formidable amounts of climbing, always compensated by worthy descents once I had reached the summits. Before the first one, there was even a thoughtful sign telling me what to expect. I took a long enough break to put more clothes on, cover my ears and neck and get scared, before hitting the pedals. I had decided (to reassure my father) to squeeze the brakes once I pass the 50km/h limit, but because of the wind I didn't reach much beyond it.

The only scary aspect was the trucks - both on ascents and descents - rushing past. I didn't really have an alternative road to take.Very soon I learned that if a truck passes close enough, the air bubble that it pushes in front propels me slightly away from it, and the vortex behind it pulls me forward, stabilizing me again. No more scare factors.

That was the first part of the day, when I was still able to think about physics.

Then came the second part of the day - clouds gathering into an homogeneous grey mass, civilization getting denser by the minute, the known ground gradually creeping closer to the edge of the map and my poor buttocks hurting more and more with every passing minute.

I have been keeping my eyes peeled and have noticed that I have definitely left behind the zone of Southern hedonism. I see no coquetterie, but only the pure pragmatism of the high lands of the cold, the wind and the rain. Not only do the buildings look like they are meant to be viewed more from the inside, but as hard as I try, I find no boulangeries, where I might charge my empty brain cells with bread. And the ones I found, after a day and a half of reading the shop signs, are simply not of good quality. There is probably one good and one excellent bakery per every two city, town or village streets in Languedoc-Roussillon.

Instead, there are many signs offering pork or beef sausages here, but I don't know how to digest this stuff. At least, not on the go.

As every bit of energy I insert goes into my muscles, or to supporting brain functions for immediate survival (such as paying attention to my surroundings), not much is left for thought processes. The results are as follows:

--> The first "brightest" moment award goes to: fishing my cell phone out of a toilet in Brioude. At least I was stupid enough to lock my bike in front of the bar and leave the key in the lock, instead of putting it in the back pocket of my tights. The drunk brickies and swollen-faced barmaid were the last people on earth I would have wanted to ask for lock-cutting help.

--> The second "brightest" moment award goes to: turning to the left where I was supposed to be turning to the right, ending up doing an extra 9km in a river valley between the cliffs covered with thick green vegetation and wrapped in swirling mist, before listening to my inner voice that was telling me to stop and check the map once again. I suppose I could call it a rather enjoyable sight-seeing tour in nature, before hitting the industrial areas around Clermont-Ferrand.

It was raining and I had no desire to stay out this night, so I was pushing the pedals hard to get to Clermont-Ferrand, where a Bed&Beer apartment was waiting for me. I managed to cycle 103km before I had a flat tyre. Then, in the middle of nowhere, 30km before my destination, I raised my thumb. To be honest, I was only too content with the direction events had taken. What better moment to practise the art of hitchbiking, especially with conditions becoming increasingly bleak: dark grey sky, fine drizzle and a hungry stomach to accompany them. Also, no phone and noone to complain to.

Who wouldn't want to help a mistress in distress, putting on her best puppy dog eyes?

The second small car passing, with a helpful lady behind the wheel, stopped and picked me up with all my luggage and the white stallion. Then, as I was waiting beside the road a second time, the rain got thicker and sky darkened faster than I had ever expected. Am I really to stay here this night? With anxiousness taking a hold inside me, I had to stop playing helpless, turn the bike upside down, take the wheel off and try to replace the innertube. But oh, no! The thin tyres are unimaginably harder to take off without the proper lever - as I realized I am not able to do it, I found that now is the time when I can allow myself to cry...

... but then a car stopped and I put on my best smile instead. He picked up my bike, stuffed it into the trunk in three bits, threw in the luggage, made space for me in the warm dry shiny new car and drove me to the doorstep of Alex and Gilou! :)

A beer was put in my hand and a fork into the other to learn how to eat again. And after a warm shower I got to sleep on my favourite couch, all night long, without rushing anywhere in the morning... Day 5 is without a doubt a well deserved day off.

Jun 2, 2010

Montpellier-Maastricht: still pushing across the Massif Central

Day 3: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good: getting out of Cevennes, leaving the storm clouds behind, and reaching the beautiful Auvergne plateau, where grass is greener (it really is!), the wind is stronger (but blowing from the side!), and my cell phone can once again receive messages. In the evening, just before camping, the road blesses me with chocolate cookies as a prize for all its tortures I struggled through successfully.

I had several hours of quality internet time after descending the Col de Thort after midday. I had been strongly missing people around me. I reconnected with the outside world, while recharging the batteries of the non-essential electricals I'm carrying (such as my laptop and my gps), and drank two big coffees with loads of sugar and milk. Sitting in the warm coffeehouse at 1000m altitude, when it was so terribly cold outside, gave me back some of that willpower that I had lost in the morning, cycling barely 20km in more than 2.5 hours.

Final score of the day: 80km.

The Bad: Looking back - nothing, really; it is all packed in pinkish clouds and labelled as "adventures" in the back corner of my mind. Yes, the morning ascent was so hard I wanted to quit (Stop! Arrête! Enough!) Or at least cry! I was fighting with myself, stopping every 3-10 minutes. The kilometers were crawling past slower than ever. I had to keep going by reminding myself that nothing will get me out of here, except for cycling on (unless I really want to quit and raise my thumb). I promised myself that if things get really bad, I can take a train, but first I have to cycle until the next train station. A village that is 10km away, might mean more than 2 hours of blood, sweat and tears.

But why all the torture? Well, my dearies, it is not an adventure, if there is no space for doubt that I am able to do it.

The Ugly: The day started with heavy climbing from alt.650m to alt.1120m in strong winds constantly blowing thinned out rainclouds into my face. I started wondering whether the North Pole is just impatient and the overly excited winds are rushing to greet me? Is it trying to push me back (stay where you are!)? Or is it simply testing my wits (is this girl worthy enough and not gone too soft in the South?)?