Archive for April, 2012

Forwards and Backwards

April 21st, 2012 by Ian

It’s been an interesting first week back on the bicycle to say the least. After a month’s break from cycle touring to swan around in Tajikistan I didn’t expect it to be as tough to get going again. Subsequently I’ve found myself asking some questions that hadn’t yet reared their ugly heads on the journey through the Americas.

Getting out of San José was the easy bit. I was desperate to move from Costa Rica’s capital after almost a week waiting for post; so with the necessaries packed neatly away in my panniers, a distinct Ian-shaped hole was all that remained in my hostel door as I shot west for Liberia. The physical impact of 4 weeks off the bicycle wasn’t immediate at first but recurring headaches starting directly after high noon gave some indication that my body hadn’t caught up with the eagerness of my mind to push on. Unfortunately I was in no place to acclimatise either because of my decision to follow some white, squiggly lines on the map that wound all over the Nicoya Peninsula in the southwest of the country. It turns out white-squiggly in this part of the world means loose gravel and 16-18% grades when the road faces unfavourable topography. Stubborn I’d pedal up these I was soon forced to push my way there after my front wheel began to tentatively lift off of the ground. Again, the headache arrived. Sweat was dripping onto the top-tube of the bicycle from my chin with an annoying regularity. My calves were aching from pushing. Passing tourists seemed to get a kick out of this, some of whom made cracks about having me committed. “Go jump in the ocean dude, you look like you’re dying out here” was one sterling piece of advice and in the midday sun and I really couldn’t argue.

This experience, only 4 hours into my second day back encouraged a thought which hadn’t entered my mind on the entire trip so far – hitching a lift to easier ground. But within that thought there’s a great challenge to the journey’s philosophy and should I decide to act on it, a seed would be sown to affect psychology from here on out. I’ve aimed to ride every last piece of road from Prudhoe to Ushuaia without breaking it except as a last resort or when necessary, such as next week to cross the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia. But just a few days ago while panting like a dog without water in 35 degree heat, I was there, in it and about to ask a vegetable delivery truck to stow my bicycle in back and what would have been a despondent passenger in front.

The desire to pedal every inch of road is an ideal I think of from time to time. I know I want to do it but haven’t thought about what that means in too much depth. The thought of looking back at the map and realising you’ve cycled 17,000 miles unbroken is definitely attractive but what’s 10km in the grand scheme when you’re having a pretty horrible day? How different will it really be at the end thinking about that dotted-line distance that’s missing? I guess I won’t know until that end but I believe that as long as you are learning something about yourself from those experiences it perhaps pays to struggle through them. I know for a fact that some of my best memories, as strange as it sounds, have been from what seemed like at the time the toughest possible moments.

And so, with that in mind, I ploughed on as best I could. I was told several months ago by some other long term tourers that when things seem to hit rock bottom, something good always comes up. By sunset that evening I felt as content on the bicycle as I did in a long time. Rows of farmhouses, the sound of crickets in the fields and howler monkeys hopping branches above me on the now flatter road would have escaped me from the confines of a glass window. The road too, was meditative. It was in rotten condition, big rocks lumped in amongst light gravel on harder pack dirt. If you don’t travel at the pace dictated by its state you run the risk of seriously frustrating yourself; but when you do accept circumstance you begin to notice so many things. Like the fact nobody else is here, the shapes of leaves on trees, evening colours on the vegetation and your supreme ability on a heavy touring bike to dodge all manners of inappropriate rocks protruding from the road! It almost compares to modern life in a way – sometimes we’re all so busy we don’t notice the little things that make up the background to everyday until something sets us back and our eyes are forced open. This might be a little over the top but when I was alone on those jungle back roads, it’s just about all I could think about.

Costa Rica itself is the most alive place I’ve been – biodiverse-ically speaking! Imagine one hundred shades of green, tropical rain showers, funny looking tree dwelling animals, forests, volcanoes and white sandy beaches and then shove them all into a space smaller than the US State of Florida. In Manuel Antonio National Park I went monkey hunting with Lily, Jack and Reed, three travellers hailing from Fairbanks, Alaska and to me such a fond place in what seems another memory and time altogether. We found sloths (I’ve never seen a creature either that lazy or just move in slow motion) toucans, white capuchin monkeys carrying hiker’s cans of tuna and a host of other Costa Rican wildlife. It was just one more island of true beauty and space that needs to be preserved within a world of high-paced development.

I’ve since crossed my last Central America border and am in the little beach community of Neuva Gorgona, Panama. I’m here a little earlier than scheduled however after a  mishap that saw me jump 80kms ahead and resume that internal battle described earlier on. 2 days ago on a sparsely populated section of road I got a flat from a staple with about an hour of sunlight left. I fixed the problem but couldn’t pump the tyre back up as the connector wouldn’t fit the valve in the new thicker rim I had installed in San José. With no hope of cycling I flagged down a mini-van and asked them to drop me at Tolé (Tow-lay), a tiny town around 3-5kms away. They assured me they knew the area very well as these places can be easy to miss off the road but 10kms later no town. When I asked a couple of times more they said “Yes, Hotel” to which my response was “No, Tolé!”“Oh, Tolé”. Now a decent distance from the town and the darkness having set they promised to drop me at the next hotel. In Santiago, 80kms from my flat tyre position I was too tired to get angry or even contemplate hitching back the next morning to start from where I suffered the flat.

I’ve regressed a few times now because of bicycle problems and didn’t want to prepare for another as I slunk east instead of west from Santiago the next morning. Deliberating inside a fortunately located, air-conditioned McDonald’s the next day I decided I wasn’t going to learn something new about myself this time round. I already had. I should have gotten that valve fixed sooner and not run the risk of breakdown. I should have stopped the car I hitched in when I saw the lights of a petrol station where the town was to be, despite the protestations of my drivers. I was only punishing myself going back, if I even could, and so now will only know at the end what those missing 80kms really mean. In fairness it shouldn’t be too much of an issue after cycling for over a year down to the bottom. I’ll also get some extra time to explore Portobelo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Panama so I’m going to dwell on the positives!

I noticed straight away too that the Panamanians are properly friendly. So much so they remind me of the Mexican spirit. And although that will be eternally tough to top, these guys are giving it a run for the money. It’s not easy to describe but you just get a sense about people after a while – they way they talk, how they interact with you or even interactions between each other that you notice. Here, people buying me drinks on the road, chatting my ears off and offering me places to camp in their back yards can only be a good sign. However, just 5 days left in Central America. I’m sailing via catamaran to the San Blas Islands next Wednesday and on to Colombia where colonial cities and the Andes await.

Total miles/km: 10,014mi/16,117 km

Current Location: Neuvo Gorgona, Panama

Time Flies in Tajikistan

April 5th, 2012 by Ian

‘Time flies’ has never applied to reality so much as in the past 3 weeks for me. I’ve arrived in Alajuela, a small town on the outskirts of Costa Rica’s capital San Jose, 18 days after leaving the same spot for Tajikistan to visit my girlfriend Áine. Getting moving again already seems like it could be the hardest or easiest thing to do.

Sitting in an empty cafe in downtown Alajuela (its Semana Santa so nobody is out but me it seems), much motivation to pedal appears drained from me. I could blame the jet lag from 3 days flying or the drastic shift upwards in temperature and humidity since I left Costa Rica in March but it’s all too evident that the low feelings associated with another 5 months of separation from Áine are playing on my mind and emotions.

It was to be expected though as I’ve already gone through it once before. Heading into the security checks in Dublin Airport last July are still a blank for me; really all I remember is being overwhelmed with immense sadness and the thoughts of “what the hell am I doing?” For most long distance touring cyclists, this contemplation rears its head at some stage. For me I reckoned it would be flying over the Arctic tundra on the way to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska with absolutely no sign of human habitation or service, no significant safety net should something go wrong. However, it was in the airport in July for those particular reasons and now is permeating the pretty weary state I’m in once again. But the only way home is forward and in that sense, pedalling is all one can do.

However, I know it will pass as before. The human mind has a great ability to rationalise events with just a little bit of time. And anyway, the desire to sleep in my tent, wild in springtime Patagonia or ride by compass and lightly-treaded path across the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is too great. Plus, they lie on another continent just 3 weeks away and this heralds the last leg or final 1/3rd of the journey (my mind has trouble rationalising that one however, the last leg being 10,000km in length!).

I want to write a little about Tajikistan but as I laugh to myself here, the place will be almost impossible to capture – for many reasons. Tajikistan lies in Central Asia bordered by Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the west and north and China to the east. It’s not anybody’s first choice holiday destination either as you’ll soon see but does offer subtle charms that lie unquestionably within the friendliness and hospitality of its people. The climate is radically different as I quickly realised too, landing in snow drifts and with metre thick ice bounding the runway. Not the hardy cyclist I imagined as I scrambled for a winter jacket disembarking the plane.

We spent some time in the capital, Dushanbe which is probably the nicest capital in all of Central Asia if the Lonely Planet is to be believed. Its main avenue is boulevard in style, greener with the snows melted and half way along is a cluster of oversized, overly gold coloured statues of founders and former leaders which I’m told is usual in this part of the world. Every corner is plastered with the face of President Emomali Rahmon too, holding babies and corn or with frenzied Tajik women placing their hands on his heart. It’s a little over-the-top but for a guy who has been in power for 19 years, image may be everything.

Áine and I planned to visit the Pamir Mountains in the southeast of the country for a week after the stint in the city. These are known as the ‘Roof of the World’ and among some of the most magnificent anybody could find with not only staggering vistas of their dozens of sharp pinnacles but the Hindu Kush of Pakistan on the other side of the Panj River. However, our trip there was less than successful as the roads were definitely, undeniably closed or open, depending on who you asked. With a 3 day driving trip to the Wakhan Corridor planned in the region, we set off in hope only to return 10 hours later after being caught between 2 avalanches and subsequently pulled out by a tractor whose driver, with the help of eager local children, craftily cut down what I’m sure was the next town’s electricity wire to tie the vehicles together. In amongst all of that and in the days following, we drank vodka and ate bread with old men in their equally marooned truck, paid countless bribes to the most corrupt policemen you’ll ever meet and had some locals threaten to beat up an airport ticketing agent in his own home on our behalf if he didn’t give us tickets to get out of the Pamirs. To them, this wasn’t at all out of order, it’s just how things got done in a country that is disorganised beyond comprehension. We never did get those tickets either…. hmmm.

While in Dushanbe, we also bumped into two other touring cyclists. Danny from England and Nathan from Wales are both cycling across the world and Asia respectively but were together since Azerbaijan when we met them. You can follow Danny’s progress at dannycycles.tumblr.com and Nathan’s at www.cyclingtowardsthesun.co.uk. They were also great fellas to have a few scoops with and go dancing at Áine’s friends’ party. Pictures shall not be released!

Ok, I’ve to see a man about a busted back wheel. It could take time though as Semana Santa has everything closed for a week. Tuesday is lift off once again, let’s hope the legs still work!

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