Thursday, 25 December 2008

17: A Christmas Coup

Following an enjoyable two-day journey from Bissau to the border town of Gabu, I was eager to cross into Guinea (Conakry) and explore the Fouta Djalon highlands. As I ate my bowl of porridge on the morning of December 23rd, shortly before crossing the border between the two Guinea's, I had Radio France International on in the background. The first story on the eight o'clock news focused on Guinea and through my miserable French I was able to make out 'Conte' (the dictator for the past 24 years), 'dead', and then there was something about the military too. In fact, they kept repeating 'militare' every few seconds. This didn't sound like good news, at least for me. In the larger scheme of things there would be many people who would be relieved to hear of the passing of the dictator, there might now be room for hope in a country that has suffered greatly from the greed of those in power.

Going outside to get a better reception, I switched to the BBC World Service as the skinny-looking vultures clattered about noisily on the tin roof of the hotel. The story was the first item on the news and although everything was reported to be calm in Conakry and throughout the country, the military had indeed seized power. Guinea has been on the verge of implosion for quite some time now and with things having gathered pace there would no doubt now be potential for power struggles. In light of this news and without internet or phones to find out other information, I pulled out my map and chose an alternative route to Mali's capital, Bamako, via eastern Senegal.

So now I'm back in Senegal, in the dusty town of Tambacounda. A young captain in the Guinean army has declared himself president and promises to have elections in two years time! I just received an email from Polish Peter who wasn't able to make it to our proposed rendevous in Guinea either. It's just another day here in Muslim Senegal. This morning I cleaned my clothes, then Rocinante, and then I phoned home and heard what was on the menu for the day. I should at least have waited until I wasn't so hungry to call. But still, I'm sure whatever I get will be fine, hell, I might have two plates of rice. In any case, all the raggedly-dressed and snotty-nosed boys coming up to me as I type, begging for money, helps keep everything in perspective.

I propose a toast for change! Merry Christmas!

Tambacounda, Senegal
Trip distance: 9402 km

Saturday, 20 December 2008

16: Season's greetings from Bissau

Six days until Christmas. If it wasn't for the life-sized Santa Claus who was grinning inanely at me yesterday, as I stumbled past a shop in the late afternoon heat of downtown Bissau, the whole event might have slipped by without me even realising it. Daren and Tatjana, my trusty traveling companions for the past couple of thousand kilometres, presented me with a Christmas gift of a bottle of whiskey last night. Our arrival in the capital of Guinea Bissau marks the end of their mainland Africa stage in their around-the-world-with-a-sore-arse odyssey. Tomorrow morning they fly out to the Cape Verde islands to meet with their families for a couple of weeks, before venturing on to traverse South America. Their company, good humour, and exceptional kindness will be sorely missed by myself and Rocinante, as we prepare to sally forth, further into west Africa.

Tall trees, short cyclist

Over the past few weeks I've been bemoaning to myself and others, how inadequately writing a blog sometimes feels with regard to portraying the experiences that I'm having whilst cycling through the region. So much is lost in translation, so little makes it to the screen. Yet for all that, I guess it's a good way of sharing at least some of the moments and letting all five of you who read this know how I'm getting along.

Ziguinchor, Senegal

After the immensity of the desert regions, everything is once again on a more human scale. Countries have shrunk to the point where it would be possible to cross two or even three international borders in a day's ride. Since leaving the Gambia a few days ago, we crossed back into Senegal's southern province of Basse Casamance. We left behind the more well-trodden tourist trails around the Gambian and Senegalese coast further north, and continued across Casamance to Ziguinchor. Despite some initial foreboding about crossing Casamance due to a rise in banditary earlier in the year, we were reassured by all whom we asked in the Gambia that the region should be fine to cross. While the region has been stable after a cease fire a couple of years ago between the separatist rebels and the government in Dakar, earlier this year some of the former rebels have turned to highway banditary and they continue to intimidate and attack the local population.

After camping up close to the Gambian/Senegalese border, we entered Casamance early in the morning and reached the capital, Ziguinchor, later that afternoon. The ride across the province was punctuated by friendly encounters with people in the villages, over which hung a huge variety of tropical trees, including mango and the ubiquitous palm. The only reminder of the trouble in the province came from passing army patrols and soldier's observation posts, hidden in the dense growth along the roadside. We were first made aware of the posts when we stopped for a break and some camoflaged figures emerged from the tall grass. The young soldier, along with the others, were from Dakar and had been based in the region for a few months. After a friendly discussion about our trip, we headed down the road to find somewhere else to stop. Later on a soldier, whom had been engrossed in a book when I sailed past, challenged Daren and Tatjana about why they were there and asked to see their weapons. After a few more moments of silly questions that only egotists in a uniform would think to ask, he let them go.

Leaving Ingore, Guinea-Bissau

After a night in Ziguinchor, the region's capital, we continued south to the border with Guinea Bissau and after a reasonably thorough search of our bags and ourselves by the Senegalese police, looking for samples of Casamance's economically vital, but illegal, cannabis crop, we entered our third country in one week. Left in a dreadful state by the Portuguese colonists, Guinea Bissau has struggled to escape from the yoke of it's cashew nut dependent economy and political instability has characterised the country for much of its existence, the most recent coup attempt occuring less than a month ago. Yet despite the threat of instability, the country has been a joy to cycle through. Border guards and uniformed officials at police checkpoints have been very welcoming. We stopped over in the small town of Ingore on our first night in the country and wandered around the stalls in the dark looking for ingredients to add to our pot of pasta. The strain on infrastructure is not simply confined to the small towns, however, as we found out when we arrived into Bissau.

It appears that there is currently no electricity grid or running water in the city, with shops and guesthouses having to rely on generators to produce the electricity they need. This collapse of essential services has meant that epidemics, such as a cholera outbreak earlier this year, have greatly affected the population. Amidst this situation, and the energy sapping climate, it's hard to imagine the relentless consumerism that is no doubt gathering pace further north, and yet once again, the ability of people to survive, smile, and laugh, despite the circumstances that they find themselves living in, continues to astound me. I'm not sure yet where I'll be on Christmas day, although there is a tentative arrangement to rendevous with Peter, a Polish cyclist whom we first met in Mauritania, across the border in the Fouta Djalon mountains in the Republic of Guinea. I might not rise to a turkey, but at least I can now manage a toast with some of my Scotch.

I love sunsets. Bissau, Guinea-Bissau

Wishing everyone a very happy festive season and New Year from Bissau!

Bissau, Guinea-Bissau
Trip distance: 8959 km

Sunday, 14 December 2008

15: Sunny days in Senegambia

A morning audience, Mauritania

The couple of hundred kilometers south of Nouakchott, into southern Mauritanian saw a continuous shrinking in distances between settlements and a transition in landscape from desert to savannah to the fertile banks of the River Senegal. On our first night out of Nouakchott we had to leave our selection of camping site until the last glimpses of light settled in the west. Even then we found ourselves pitching our tents in sight of households on either side of us. As we cooked dinner a moonlit shadow strolled past, whistling to himself. The following morning we had a smiling audience of young boys, who stopped by on their way to school to and were fascinated by the packing of the tents and bikes.

St. Louis, Senegal

In an effort to avoid the Rosso border post, Mauritania's notoriously difficult crossing point into Senegal, we opted instead to follow the 90 km piste along the river and cross over at Diama, near the old French colonial capital of French West Africa, St. Louis. After a couple of days of doing as little as possible in St. Louis, and enjoying the now freely available and reasonably priced cold beer, and funky music, we were back on the bikes heading south again through a landscape dominated by baobab and tamarind trees. Avoiding the main road south to Senegal's capital, Dakar, we chose an alternative route that looked perfectly acceptable on my Michelin 741 map of west Africa. However by midday of Tabaski, one of the largest Muslim festivals in the year, we found ourselves pushing our bikes along a sandy piste for almost 10 kilometres when my 'secondary road' deteriorated into a single path of deep sand. In our haste to reach Mbour, a fishing town 80 km southeast of Dakar, we ended up refusing many offers of hospitality to join families as they ate mutton, the traditional meat for the day.

Tall trees, Senegal

Leaving our bikes in Mbour we headed into Dakar for the day to collect some visas and have a look around town. The city was still in a lazy stupor after the festivities of Tabaski and failed to live up in any way whatsoever to its reputation as a potentially hostile and hassle-filled place. Back in Mbour we had two options to continue around the coast to The Gambia. The first was to take the busy main road via Kaolack. The second was to hire a pirogue and catch a lift across the Saloum Delta. Once deposited on Toubakouta's muddy shores we would be just a 50 km ride from Banjul, Gambia's capital. Still wearied from the journey down and the Great Push of Tabaski, there was no contest as to which way we would go.

Four hours into what was meant to be a three hour voyage across the mangrove-lined Saloum Delta, all of those aboard, at least all the paying passengers, were wondering why we had chosen the pirogue option. Until an hour after departure it had all gone rather smoothly. The tense negotiations with the mafia-like pirogue owners had whittled the sum down from astronomic to acceptable at the small beach in the village of Ndangane. Half an hour out we were passed by a rather well-equipped boat ferrying other tourists through the delta. The tourists were sporting lifejackets and had a shaded tarpaulin overhead. In contrast, our barefooted crew, the youngest two of whom were aged 11 and 9, had set off on our adventure with just their t-shirts and shorts and the best we could hope for in the event of an accident was to use the inner tubes from the bikes as lifebelts. The two boys were the apprentices of our early twenties looking captain who was instructing them in the rules of the trade. One of the first rules that I noticed him casually pointing out to the 11-year old, was not to hold his lighted cigarette too close to the petrol tank that he was hooking up to the engine. One hour into our journey and everything was going swimmingly well. At this point in many of my boating adventures the engine dies - and this time was no different. Bobbing silently about in the tidal creek, our captain set to work with my Swiss army knife to fix something with the engine. For the next few hours we crept slowly towards Toubakouta, every so often the engine giving up and then being brought back to life after more work with the penknife and swearing at the engine. Occasionally progress stopped completely when we got stuck on sandbanks. Seven hours after our departure we arrived in the little village of Toubakouta, relieved to be off the boat and back on the bikes. Concerned about the fate of the crew who were turning around to venture back to Ndangane during the night, the 11-year old replied that yes, it was dangerous to travel through the delta at night, but it would be ok.

The border formalities from Senegal into Gambia were painless. For the first time since leaving Ireland in July I'm traveling through a country where English is an official language. I continued to greet people in French though. Our passing through villages continued to the shrill cries of toubab from children. Arriving at the ferry point at Barra it appeared that most of Banjul's population was attempting to return across the River Gambia to the city after the Tabaski break. Finally making it onto the boat, which was crammed well beyond capacity, we slowly ventured across the river to Banjul chewing on some fresh oranges.

Bakau, The Gambia
Trip distance: 8638 km

Monday, 1 December 2008

14: Sun, sand and tinned fish

Following our sojourn in Dakhla we hitched back down to the bikes. Originally we had intended to camp out near the border, but the risk of mines, and an offer of a free floor in the hotel where we had left our gear, kept us in the small settlement of Dakmar for our final night in Morocco. Discussions about the fate of Western Sahara with a Saharwi living in the village shed more light on the situation. In a final flamboyant display of hospitality from our hosts we were fed locally caught lobster for dinner. We're certainly not slumming it in the desert!

An early morning start brought us to the border with Mauritania. After clearing the Moroccan side, after a couple of hours of formalities, we crossed the several kilometres of no-man's land to reach the Mauritanian border gate. Our arrival coincided with the guards' lunch and siesta and while life swung slowly back into action, we were instructed to wait outside the raised barrier. The shadow of the barrier provided an 8-inch wide strip of shade that the three of us shared in the glaring sunlight of mid-afternoon. Finally naptime was over and we were stamped into Mauritania.

Until three years ago the journey on from the border would have entailed taking a ride on the iron ore train to Choum, in the interior, followed by a difficult crossing along a sandy piste to Atar and then a sealed road to the capital, Nouakchott. Now there is a sealed road linking Nouadibhou in the north, with Nouakchott, 470 km south. Avoiding a detour to Nouadibhou, and therefore forsaking a stock up on supplies, we headed directly to Nouakchott. Initial impressions of Mauritania was of a country that appeared substanitally poorer than its northern neighbour, at least if the appearance of the sparsely scattered roadside settlements were anything to go by. Ironically, costs for very basic supplies (water and yet more tinned fish) in the small, delapidated shacks at the roadside were double that of Morocco.

A combination of factors, including the limited availability of fresh food, strong winds, and hot days, made the last section of the desert crossing the hardest yet of our journey. Currently listed as a country where only 'essential travel' should be undertaken by the ever cautious British foreign office, we were slightly more vigilant since entering the country. Our only negative experience occured on the second day in the country when a group of men disembarked from a van and flagged us down. A particularly belligerent fellow, who appeared to be under the influence of something stronger than mint tea, ed a bottle of water from my rear rack. Not a nice thing to do, particularly to a cyclist crossing the desert. Fortunately this experience paled in comparison to the kindness and hospitality that we have been shown since arriving here. At one point on the final day to Nouakchott, with bread supplies running periliously low, we discussed the situation as we ate the remainder of our sandy food. Two minutes later a gleaming Volkswagen pulled up and two freshly baked baguettes were handed out of the window. After the car left I said aloud that I would really like some bacon and a bottle of cold beer, but unfortunately that car never arrived.

The larger issue that the country is attempting to grapple with is that of Islamic fundamentalism. The country was recently identified by the head of the German intelligence agency as the next training ground for militant Islamic fundamentalists that have been displaced from Afghanistan and Pakistan. In reality, radical beliefs are only held by a very small section of the population and recent attacks against Mauritanian soldiers by fundamentalist militants have only further angered and alienated the general population from this radical segment of society. A recent military coup that ousted the President has been viewed with apparent widespread approval by many Mauritanians, as the military advocates a hardline approach against the militants.

On our second night in the country, we found ourselves camped in an open plain with no shelter, having already decided to move on after our initial choice of campsite had clearly been spotted by a passing vehicle. After another meal of pasta with fish (sometimes we have fishy pasta instead), we had gone to our tents when I saw that the stiff breeze had already allowed a fine layer of sand to uniformly cover everything in the tent. By midnight the deafening noise of the flapping flysheet had me concerned enough to clambour out and survey how the only partially submerged tent pegs were coping. Much to my relief all but one had held. Back in the sandy tent I fell asleep for another couple of hours. When I woke at 4am, however, it felt as though the tent was going to go airborne at any moment. A mist of fine sand was billowing through the ventilated sides of the tent. Outside the wind seemed considerably less fearsome, but still more than sufficient to force more sand into my eyes, nose, and ears. A hasty discussion in the inky black darkness led us to decide to wait until first light to break camp. The wind continued all morning. During our snack break we stood to attention, backs to the wind, sand exfoliating our legs, as we crunched through our pasteurised cheese sandwiches. With the prospect of shelter and supplies at a petrol station that lay 20 km further on, we got back on the bikes. Our arrival at the station was heralded by a group of applauding Frenchmen fishermen who had passed us earlier in the day. Chilled rose and some magnificent cheese was pulled out of a cooler and grinning stupidly, we eagerly scoffed it down, only gradually becoming aware of our filthy appearance. As the fishermen drove off we descended on the remnants of plates of fried mutton like vultures, having been eyeing them up all too obviously no doubt.

Nouakchott. Someone has suddenly turned up the heat. I attempt a midday walk and I have to intersperse my hunt for peanut butter with regular stops for a cold drink. Designated as the site for the new capital in 1956, the sandy city feels calm and relatively relaxed. I pitch my tent on top of the place we're staying in and fall asleep looking at the stars and listening to the waning of sounds of the city.

Today I'm up at sunrise having drifted in and out of consciousness whilst the muezzin chanted in the hour before dawn. I stroll through the sand-lined streets until it's time to go to the Malian embassy to get a visa. It's Monday and the city is wakening up to a new week. A kaleidascope of skin colours make up the city's population. Light skinned Moors, dark skinned southerners, and the odd toubab or European, the latter normally in a diplomatic or UN-labelled vehicle. Ragged young boys prepare to make a pittance washing cars. Large four-wheel drives roar past. Clapped out taxis lurch along, stocked well above the vehicle's intended loading capacity. A herd of fine looking goats graze through a pile of rubbish at the corner of the Senegalese embassy. Diesel fumes, the aroma of fresh bread, and the smell of the desert (or more likely the rising dust) mingle in the air. It's a heady and hypnotic fusion of sights and sounds at the gateway to west Africa.

Nouakchott, Mauritania

Trip distance: 7970 km

Saturday, 22 November 2008

13: Line dancing in the mine fields

Best not to hammer the tent pegs too hard now - after 30 years of conflict, Western Sahara remains heavily mined and every year there are several fatal casualties

Although this hasn't stopped our early morning jigs

The tailwinds continued out of Laayoune as we continued south through Western Sahara. Wind is the determining factor for a cyclists' mental well-being and nowhere is this more true than in Western Sahara. With a strong tailwind, pre-dawn risings, and kilos of Moroccan biscuits we can make good progress, covering over 160 km on good days. With a headwind we can barely manage a frustrating and energy sapping 100 km. The first person out of the tent in the starry early morning gives the news as to which direction the wind is choosing to blow today. Fortunately the prevailing wind is a northerly one in this region and on most days we end up sailing pleasantly along through the desert. With the road generally staying close to the Atlantic, a cooler climate prevails than would be the case further inland. Many cold evenings are spent bundled up around our cooking stoves, willing on pots of camel and goat stews, before diving into the warmth of our tents and sleeping bags.

Sand streams

Sometimes it is remarked to us, generally by passing travelers in their four wheel drives, that the coastal road through Western Sahara and Mauritania is a long and boring route through a barren, featureless landscape. However, none of us have felt this way about the journey. While the early risings, long hours in the saddle, and the evening chores of building our houses and cooking food, take their toll, there has rarely been, if ever, a dull moment traveling through Western Sahara.

A fishing village between Boujdor and Dakhla

Distances between supplies and villages have been up to 160 km, the equivalent of Belfast to Dublin with not even a building in between. And then... you arrive at a petrol station (with no petrol) that is only stocking bottled water and another variety of tinned fish.

"How far to the next station?".

"120 kilometres".

"I'll have six tins of sardines, ten loaves of bread, and ten litres of water please".

Camel for dinner

We normally manage to be quite inventive with the ingredients from small village stalls and petrol stations, although our diet is heavily subsidised by the seemingly endless varieties of 1 dirham biscuits. Camel, goat, and lamb is taken for the pot where the meat looks fresh, although it's often best not to pay too much attention to the butcher's chopping block as wields his cleaver through the air and splits another camel in half. The meat is kept cool in a water-soaked sock that dangles off Daren's rear rack. Motorists have bestowed gifts of olive oil, bread, and whiskey when they met us.

Three days out from Laayoune and Sven rolled in with his heavily laden bicycle and trailer, to a petrol station where we were savouring the shade and some cool drinks. Sven left Germany eleven months ago and had been trying to catch up with us over the past week as he was told of our pedal-powered convoy at police checkpoints and by passing motorists.

Encounters with locals have normally been limited to those who have come from Morocco to live here, encouraged by a government offering tax breaks and subsidised food. Along the road, newly built villages stand uninhabited, waiting for more people from the north to arrive. Police and military checkpoints have also continued, along with a preoccupation about our jobs. They are friendly encounters, however, with the state's apparatus for maintaining tight control on the territory.

Nearing the Mauritanian border, the traffic thins out and military jeeps and camoflaged oil tankers predominate, rushing between Dakhla and military bases along the heavily fortified border. We stop to rest up at a hotel, 85 km before the border. After a week of living in the sand, everything needs washing and de-sanding. The shower basin looks like a small sand pit after we've all finished hosing ourselves down. Clothes, bodies, and cooking pots greatly appreciate the first splashings of soapy water in a week. Unfortunately Daren injures his foot in a fall during the dark, the evening before we were due to depart to cross the Mauritanian border, and we have to leave our bikes at the hotel whilst we hitch 300 km back up the coast to Dakhla, where the nearest hospital and pharmacy are located, and where this posting is coming from. The good news is that he has been given the all clear and loaded up with anti-inflamatories and painkillers, we'll head back down to the bikes in a day or two before continuing on.

Nearing the end of another day

Dakhla, Western Sahara

Trip distance: 7430 km

Thursday, 13 November 2008

12: Tailwinds through Africa's last colony

Where desert meets the ocean

It wasn't hard to recognise Daren and Tatjana and their loaded bikes in Tan Tan Plage, despite having only conversed over emails prior to that point. They had been camping out for the past few nights and were looking forward to getting some of the sand out of their clothes, albeit only temporarily. We retreated to the campsite for the evening and after they had washed up and scrubbed down we discussed the journey ahead. After getting supplies in town the next morning, we were back on the road south.

A fisherman's hut

It's a good feeling having company again. Now, pedaling along, we can chat or just let distances emerge between us as we pedal southwards, pushed on by cooperative tailwinds. Daren and Tatjana are exceedingly modest when discussing their two-year, around the world bicycle trip that they have planned across Africa, South America, Australia, and Asia.

Our first 10 km riding together, however, had us all nervous about the 1600 km trek to the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. An exceedingly stiff cross wind from the interior had scooped up the fine sand and we were riding through a fog of sand, occasionally getting blasted off the road by both wind and passing trucks. This unhappy state of affairs retreated, however, and we were soon breezing along the escarpment above the Atlantic coast. Similarly our first night camping together, in small dunes just off the road, didn't bode well initially. With the sun having just set, our chosen site was apparently also the preferred home of mosquitoes and we were all gorged on before we could get the tents up and the fire going. Blood spatters from the swatted parasites now added to the other grime. Soon they retreated too, however, and the almost full moon magically lit up the surrounding dunes as we sat around the fire.

The following day we were back on the coast, passing the fishermen's huts perched atop the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. We had debated about the need to venture 4 km off the road to Tarfaya for supplies, but the lack of a shop beforehand decided the issue for us.

Tarfaya appeared as a dusty, small town at the edge of the known world. We stopped at the first shop we came too and went in to get water, bread and various snacks for lunch. Twice I refused a young teenage boy's demand for a dirham. Leaving the shop, Daren paused to take a photo of the town's dusty and deserted street. I too reached for my camera, but instead I found a gaping hole in my camera bag. A rush of anxiety as I mentally retraced my last steps and I quickly realised, with a sickening feeling, that it must have been lifted out of the bag whilst we were in the shop. None of us could believe it. The town appeared so quiet, so calm and uninterested in us. My poor communication with the shop owner made the initial discussion sound more like an accusation than a query. Gradually more passersby became interested and then the tide turned. A young and frightened looking boy on a bike had spotted another boy dipping his hand into my handlebar bag. After some more moments I was assured that my camera would arrive momentarily. Nobody wanted to involve the police, which was fine by me too.

Approximately three quarters of an hour passed since we'd stopped at the shop and my camera was returned by the same boy who had been asking me for a dirham. He scarpered off before being lynched by the dismayed crowd that had now gathered. The event over, everyone dispersed and after thanking those who had helped recover my camera we rode out of Tarfaya. We didn't look back. With a happy ending, and yet another demonstration of the power of using local community networks to resolve issues such as these (this is not the first boomerang camera incident I've had, see a previous post about South Africa), it was also a timely lesson in not being too casual about leaving bikes and gear unattended.

Sunrise over the tents, our first morning in Western Sahara

After another beautiful camping spot, overlooking the Tah depression, we rode the remaining 80 km into Laayoune yesterday morning. The capital of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, Laayoune is dominated by soliders, police, and white, UN labeled Landcrusiers - all testament to the unresolved conflict between the Moroccan government and the Sahrawi people, that has persisted for the past three decades. The sandy territory has been dubbed by some as 'Africa's last colony'. For southbound cyclists, Laayoune also represents a chance to stock up on essentials before continuing on.

Daren and Tatjana scout for local football talent in Laayoune

Laayoune, Western Sahara
Trip distance: 6680 km

Want to find out more about Western Sahara? Here's some good bedtime reading...

For a general introduction see the wikipedia article.

The International Crisis Group have a couple of very readable reports published in mid 2007 that examine the development of the conflict and also try to identify potential solutions to the current stalemate.

There are a number of pro-self-determination blogs on the Western Sahara issue, including: Western Sahara info -

Swiss-based ARSO -

Western Sahara Resource Watch -

And two US-based bloggers...

For something from a Moroccan perspective try...

Friday, 7 November 2008

11: Follow that swallow

As I rode out of Tafraoute after a six day sojourn, there was a sprinkling of snow on the mountain tops of the Anti Atlas. It was definitely time to continue the migration south and escape the tentacles of the northern hemisphere's winter months. As I dropped southwards out of the mountains, I passed through one village where a little boy made the customary plea for a pencil. Muttering "no" as I pedaled on, I thought I heard him say something else. Turning around to look at the kid, with his school bag on his back, he was holding out his half eaten bread roll towards me and saying, "Tiens", or "take", with a big, innocent smile on his face. I wanted to give him every pencil and pen I had on me. I wanted to run over and hug him for restoring my faith in small Moroccan children. Instead I stuttered out a "non, merci". Shouting a thank you in Arabic for good measure, and waving unsteadily, I pedaled on elated.

The temperature climbed steadily as I emerged from the mountains and joined the N1 south at Bouizakarne. The strip of asphalt runs all the way through to Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania, and represents one of a limited number of possibilities for crossing on a sealed road from North Africa into sub Saharan Africa. As the principal road south into Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, the road is predictably heavy with goods and passengers being brought north and south. With only enough room for two trucks to pass each other, I had to settle for riding on the dirt shoulder at times. This unpleasant state of affairs was initially compensated by the friendly waves and hoots of the passing truck drivers, although fatigue had set in and this unwanted attention became somewhat tiresome, merely adding further cacophony to the dust and diesel fumes.

Guelmim. I'm sitting outside a cafe, drinking tea, when a camel runs straight through the red light of the town's main intersection and on down the road. Described by my photocopied guidebook as a 'small, dusty town with little to offer the passerby', it feels like Las Vegas to me after the journey through Morocco's southern interior. Pizza, smoothie-type drinks made from avocado - fantastic, and a supermarket stocking peanut butter, and, wait for it - porridge oats! Although despite my apparent enthusiasm for the latter I indulge less and less these days.

I spotted Olly and deduced that he was the owner of the GB-registered motorbike parked in the lobby of the hotel. Hailing from Bristol, Olly was also enroute to West Africa and over a late night tea and an early morning breakfast we swap stories and information about the road behind and the road ahead, his a slightly more condensed and speedier version than mine. I receive word that my two potential riding partners for the journey south will be a few days in arriving. As I watch Olly loading his bike, I spot two cyclists replete with touring panniers, pull up at the end of the street. I say hello and ask them where they are heading? The young Swiss couple tell me they are headed to the ruins of the nearby old French military fort, Fort Bou Jerif. A scene reminiscent of Stanley's encounter with Dr. Livingstone follows. Overhearing that I'm Irish, they ask if my name is Julian Bloomer. It transpires that they had met Jean and Patrick in Marrakech (two French travelers I had met a couple of weeks back in Merzouga) and the guys had told them about meeting me. It's a small world. The other day I received a reply to an email I had sent to Daniel Harmen, an English cyclist currently in Guinea, and he said he had met some people recently who told him that there was Irishman coming down from Morocco on his bike. It could be another Irishman, but then again. As I say, it's a remarkably small world, even if you're on a bicycle.

Olly heading for Western Sahara

I make a pleasant day trip from Guelmim to the ruins of Fort Bou Jerif, on an unloaded and sprightly Rocinante. There's a campsite beside the fort, a popular stopover for those heading south apparently. I chat to a Dutch couple and a South African couple who are heading to the DRC and South Africa respectively in well-equipped overland vehicles. There is music, laptops and Bovril. It's all so tempting and looks like fun. I leave before I get overcome with emotion. Nick, an English motorcyclist, passes me by on the way back to Guelmim. He's heading back home after several weeks touring Europe and Morocco. He likes the idea of cycling. I like the idea of his motorbike. The grass is always greener on the other side.

Fort Bou Jerif

To anticipate the trucks I buy a rear view mirror from a bicycle shop in Guelmim. Its meant for a motorbike and is a lot larger than I would have wished for, but it will do the job. Perhaps I'll get an engine next.

Life in the desert

On the road to Tan Tan. It seems less busy than the other day. I'm happy to wave to honking truckers today. The new mirror is fantastic. I can anticipate when I need to be close to the verge and when I can relax and move towards the centre of the road. Hard to believe how cold it was in Tafraoute a few days ago. It's hot again. I pull into one of the only settlements along the route just after midday. I have my own sandwiches so I just take a coke, happy to be out of the sun for a bit. Oil and coke seem to be the main products heading south. Two bloodied goats heads eyeball me from a nearby table. Presumably they are to demonstrate the freshnesh of the carcass on offer to customers. The flies are horrendous. Everywhere. I have to keep the lid on the bottle and take quick gulps whilst avoiding drinking a fly too. The only other customers, a group of truckers, tuck into their goat tagine, encouraging me to join them. I decline politely, and head back outside where it's about Gas mark 5.

A long way from home...

Twenty kilometers before Tan Tan I'm waved through a police checkpoint. Five dogs follow me in hot pursuit but soon give up the chase. They seem to have much less resolve than their mountain cousins. Outside Tan Tan I pass the first police checkpoint where all the details from my passport are noted. This becomes increasingly common the closer one gets to Western Sahara. The officer in charge of the biro looks at my bicycle, and then at me. "You are on a bicycle?", he says, studying the column for 'type of vehicle' in his ledger. I nod and smile to affirm that I am indeed sitting on a bicycle. We exchange jokes, with neither of us understanding the other, and then he waves me on into town.

Tan Tan isn't Guelmim, but it's not a bad spot. A collonaded main street bears testimony to the town's history as part of Spanish-Morocco. There's a hustle and bustle along the street. I'm in a €5 per night establishment, with a balcony overlooking the main bus park. Tomorrow morning should be a treat. Still, the owner is friendly and the shower is hot. I change into civvies and go to find food, water, and the internet while the muezzin calls the devout to prayer.

Tan Tan, Morocco

Trip distance: 6355 km

Saturday, 1 November 2008

10: Slowing down in the Anti Atlas

"People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home" - Dagobert D. Runes

"May all your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you" - Edward Abbey

"The journey is the destination." - Dan Eldon

Plenty of time for accepting kind offers to sit and drink a tea lately...

There's a couple of thought provoking travel quotes to ponder on this wet and chilly Saturday evening in the Anti-Atlas mountains. While the pace of movement has slowed down to a virtual crawl over the past week, the bonus has been that there is plenty of time to accept invitations for tea, and to enjoy some time off Rocinante in the hills around Tafraoute. There's a lot to be said for the idea that the slower you travel the more you appreciate it. Rather than take a more direct route from Tata towards the main (only) road south through Western Sahara to Mauritania, I chose to employ one last diversionary tactic and make a last visit to the temperate climes of the Anti Atlas. Well as I sit typing, wrapped up in almost every item of clothing in my wardrobe, it's a bit more temperate than I would have wished for.

Leaving Tata I headed northeast to Igherm, stopping overnight enroute at the oasis village of Tagmoute. Invitations for tea have abounded of late and I reckon that if I were to accept each one I'd be hard put to make more than about five kilometers per day, but I had lots of conversations with people in the villages enroute. Many of the people I've met have spent significant parts of their working lives in Europe, usually in France, and have retired home to Morocco. For many of the migrants, while working abroad provided an income that would have been unattainable at home, it has also meant an often painful separation from their families for many years. Pondering on this hardship the other day, after a brief chat with a man who had spent 28 years working in France whilst his family remained in a village near Tagmoute, I approached the top of what had been the first serious climb in the past couple of weeks since crossing the Middle Atlas. A movement on the treeless hillside brought me back to the present and soon I had made a conscious connnection between the blur and the savage barking that I had subsequently begun to hear. I realised then that I was probably experiencing my third "Encounter With A Ferocious Dog" in Morocco.

Moments before the battle...

When one is climbing an incline of more than 8% on a loaded touring bicycle, with the additional ballast of 4 litres of water - just to make sure the odds are truly stacked against you - the appearance of a rabid-looking, salivating hound who probably hasn't eaten since the last cyclist passed this way, certainly brings out a feeling of vulnerability. If this was a wildlife programme, I was like that aging buffalo that couldn't keep up with the rest of the herd when the lions broke from their hiding. It was merely a case of chasing down the prey. Only I didn't even have a herd. The last and only car on the road had passed by well over an hour previously. Cycling appeared only to provoke matters as Jaws decided which juicy-looking calf he'd sample first. I remembered the three options that I had been rehearsing for such occasions, all of which seemed truly pathetic in the face of this frothy-mouthed canine. The most humane approach, and therefore least effective, would be to spray water from my bottle in the dog's eyes when he came close enough. The second was to wield my pump at the dog and give him a wallop if he tried to move in for the kill. The final option was to pretend I was taking a penalty kick for Ireland that would bring us to South Africa in 2010, with the dog's head being the ball.

I settled on trying the middle option first. As I was unhooking my pump from the bike frame, as if it were a double-barrel shotgun, I realised that what I had presumed to be the echo of the dog's barking was actually a fellow bloodthirsty hound who had come over the mountain to see what all the fuss was about. Delighted at the prospect of sharing the corpse of a tender and succulent cyclist, the slightly healtier looking new arrival performed a flanking manoeuver. Wielding my pump as if it were a lightsaber from Star Wars, I felt ridiculosly ill-equipped to fend off the beasts, and I began to estimate how long I could hold out for. Just as I was trying to assess the feasibility of taking two penalties for Ireland simultaneously, my guardian angel appeared over the brow of a hill. The woman, who was covered in a red shawl, hissed a couple of barely audible retorts to the dogs and within a couple of seconds they had assumed disinterested positions, overlooking their flock of goats, casually gazing over in my direction as an old man might sit and watch young children playing. I said hello and thanked the woman in my best Berber and she looked at me as she walked over to the dogs, but failed to acknowledge my greeting or gratitude. I waved and smiled gratefully, thinking that body language might be a more effective means of expressing my appreciation, but still no acknowledgement of a presence other than a look that seemed to suggest everything was my fault. Finally, fearing that the lady could well change her mind and release the hounds on me once again, I jumped back on the bike and headed all too slowly on up the hill.

Overlooking Aday village and Tafraoute in the distance in the Anti Atlas

Tafraoute, Morocco

Trip distance: 5975 km

Saturday, 25 October 2008

9: Lazy days in Tata

Since the last entry in Agdz I rode across to Tata, via Foum Zguid, an exquisite journey through a stark and desolate landscape. In the 270 km between Agdz and Tata I can almost count on two hands the number of settlements that I passed. Since I have yet to erect my tent in Morocco and have become accustomed to staying in affordable hotels, I tend to try and make a town each evening and find a place to sleep there. So after a long day down to Foum Zguid I ended up in Hotel Bani. The lobby of the hotel appeared to double as a motorcycle repair shop and after checking on a couple of the rooms I settled on one just off the repair shop floor, where I could wheel my bike into without unloading it. After throwing the remnants of a now petrified loaf of bread into a bin in the repair shop I dusted down the rickety metal table and plastic chair. A closer inspection of the bedcovers led me to suspect that it was not common practice to change the covers between the departure and arrival of occupants so I decided it would be prudent to camp on the bare concrete floor with my new and untried air mattress that I had bought in Spain. After a hearty dinner of yet another tagine and yet more bread in a nearby cafe, I retired to my concrete floor, tired from the day's exertions and eager to get an early start on the road to Tata the following morning. I had a restless night on the floor, however, and despite the comfort of my mattress, I found myself waking up in pools of sweat and wringing my new travel pillow dry.

I had been having some kind of pleasurable dream when I came to in the darkness of the cell. I checked my recently purchased, made-very-definitely-in-China alarm clock and saw that it was just after 5am. I wasn't sure why I'd woken up, and then it started again. A loudspeaker on a pole outside my room was piping in the Koranic verses that were being chanted by a sombre sounding gentleman in the nearby mosque. I pulled up the hood of my sleeping bag over my head and faded in and out of consciousness whilst the chanting continued for a further hour. Moments after the chanting stopped, the shrill alarm of my new clock told me that it was time to knock back more vanilla-flavoured yoghurts, and a loaf stuffed with banana and peanut butter and get back on the bike.

Early morning and late afternoon is my favourite time for being on the bike. Not only is the temperature generally more agreeable, but the long shadows cast by the light give the landscape more depth and contrast than the blinding light of the midday hours. Riding east towards Tata, there was a pleasant chill in the air and an even more welcome tailwind that carried me along the first straight 40 km very enjoyably. Such was the tailwind that I had begun to plot the day ahead and review my estimated time of arrival in Tata. Then, mysteriously the road seemed to get stickier and the bike heavier and I realised that I had passed an invisible line and that I now had a stiff headwind to contend with for the remaining 100 km to Tata. In Tissint, I found the only cafe of the trip and ordered my mid-morning staple of an omlette, bread and a coke, instead of the regular mint tea. Deciding on food and drink is really just a question of deciding how you like your sugar.

The dust clouds blown up by gusts of wind forced me to take shelter inside the cafe and I sat content to be out of the sun whilst groups of school boys studiously examined every detail of my bicycle, the younger ones being particularly impressed with Tiger. After ordering the food the owner-chef-waiter of the cafe set about visiting the various stalls in the vicinity, gathering up supplies to put the meal together. After a long spell in the latrine he emerged and with a worringly short and soapless rinse of his hands under a tap in the corner of the room, he set about preparing the food. Having just recovered from a week's worth of olympic sprints to the nearest toilet, hole or bush, I was sensitive on this particular issue, but I enjoyed my omlette and wonderfully fresh, still warm bread and headed back into the white light. A jolly police officer waved me through the checkpoint in the middle of town.

The ride to Tata continued into ever strengthening headwind. Despite the road's orientation varying from southeast to northeast and back to east, the wind appeared to be a constant headwind. Gusts of fine sand easily passed my wraparound sunglasses and stripped another layer of skin off my lips. I deemed the occasion a suitable time for my recently acquired headscarf and I have found the long strip of blue cloth to work admirably well at keeping me cool and covered up from the elements. In addition, and this idea is still in experimentation phase, but I believe wee terrorists are less inclined to pester me when I have my head covered. The combination of cycling gear and head-dress also provides endless delight and photo opportunities for the now dwindling number of tourists passing by.

With 20 km to go to Tata I had to stop by the roadside and dig into the remaining reserves of chocolate, water, and bread to stave off the shaky leg syndrome that I could feel coming on. Moments later, out of the apparent uninhabited wilderness, a fellow and his five donkeys were making a beeline for me. "Unbloody believeable", I groaned outloud. Expecting a demand of some sort I braced myself for the encounter. Rashid introduced himself, however, with a shake of my hand followed by the typical touch of your heart and outlined the journey he was making on foot from Rich to Assa. If you plot this on a map of Morocco this is approximately 1000 km of foot plodding. An incredible journey, which despite my non-existent Arabic and his virtually non-existent French, I determined would take him approximately five to six weeks at the pace he was currently traveling at. I handed him a half litre of water and the remaining half loaf of bread, which he ate hungrily, before thanking me and heading on his way. I headed on towards Tata, with renewed enthusiasm at the prospect of a shower, another tagine, and thankful that I had Rocinante rather than five donkeys to travel with.

According to wikipedia, Tata has a population of 40,000 people. I would have thought more like 400, but regardless of the population, Tata is proving to be a pleasant break from the road. I have found peanut butter that is sold in 2 litre paint tins, very useful for the weight-conscious cyclist. I've been invited to a splendid collective meal of camel tagine, which I had initially taken for mutton, accompanied with fresh, creamy goats milk, and I've drunk mint tea by the pint, whilst watching the world go by. There is even reasonably priced beer available, but the bar isn't all that inspiring, and like the couple of others I've poked my head into in Morocco, feels to me like a dirty, little secret, hidden as always behind covered windows and occupied by those whose main intent appears unfortunately to be reaching the bottom of the next bottle.

Anyhow, having settled into the joys of cycling through Morocco, life, and camel steak, tastes good.

Tata, Morocco
Trip distance: 5790 km

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

8: "Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel"

A modern day tourist caravan winds its way through the dunes at Erg Chebbi

I thought I might expand on last week's rather pessimistic entry and elaborate further on my thoughts about children and cycling in Morocco. A question that I always find interesting is how is it that two people can visit the same place and then come away with vastly different experiences? While the postive or negative events that the traveler experiences in these places undoubtedly are vital in their perception of the place, I think how the traveler feels internally and how they view their experiences that shapes so much of their accounts.

I've had plenty of time in the saddle over the past few days to ruminate further on why children here see a cycling European as a likely source of sweets, pencils and dirhams. I've also met several cyclists at this stage and one of the first topics of conversation was the children we've encountered. Like a scene from a Mad Max film, I've been cycling across an apparently barren, rocky plain, when suddenly I see a group of children who had been playing contentedly, or keeping on eye on a herd of goats, jump up and run at a angle that is timed to intercept me further along the road. Yells for water, sweets, and more rarely my bicycle, fill the air, as the children perform admirably well at bearing down on me. And let's be clear, we're not just talking about the poor kids here, but also children who are obviously well-dressed and playing in front of houses that are adorned with all the accoutrements of a wealthier household.

The key factor here is that the children never appear to approach Moroccans, no doubt fearing the rebuke that they would receive. So somewhere along the line the children have learned that by pleading to a nisrani they will potentially receive something in return. Four years ago, when my cousin Mark and myself were touring here, we came upon a caravan of Spanish four-wheel drives that were tossing sweets out to children waiting along the roadside of a popular off-road tourist track in the High Atlas. There was no human contact here, instead it was like feeding time at the zoo. A few days ago, I heard a story from someone living in Merzouga about a group of holidaying Europeans who had loaded their vehicles up with clothes and other items and then pulled up in a village near Merzouga, handed the items over to the presumably surprised villagers and driven off. No need was identified. No one consulted. Such indiscriminate giving may momentarily salve the conscience of a visiting European, but it reinforces a stereotype that foreign tourists will just give things if you demand it from them. The dangers are obvious. Children run out, not just in front of bicycles, but also cars, 4x4's, and motorbikes. They may also avoid going to school and wait for passing tourists at the roadside instead.

European perceptions of poverty are not always accurate either and judging the wealth of a household is not always as easy as one might suspect. The other day another traveler related a story of how he was invited into an old man's house in a small village for tea. The front of the house looked tatty and afterwards the traveler offered to pay for the tea. At that point the old man smiled and in his unkempt djellaba, led the traveler over to his garage. Behind the rickety wooden door were the possesions bought with remittances sent home from a son in Europe - a recent model Mercedes and a new motorbike.

While children may just be having fun and seeking something sweet for their teeth, it's also important to recognise that begging replaces what a social welfare system might offer people in other countries. This is particularly important in Muslim societies, where a strong emphasis is placed on acts of charity to those less fortunate. One of my favourite stories is recounted by my friend Charlie about an epsiode from his first travels to Morocco, some years ago now. Charlie was sitting at the front of the fully occupied bus, waiting for it to depart, when an old man clambered up the steps and put out his hands for money. Not wishing to be perceived as the hapless, gullible traveler, Charlie resolutely refused to hand over any of his money. Unperturbed the man moved on down the bus, requesting money from the other passengers. Nearly everyone on the bus gave something to the old man.

Alright, well that's enough on this particular subject for now. As I fear I may have created a bad impression with all this talk of begging and children descending on me, it's also vital to note the huge generousity that I've experienced whilst traveling in Morocco. On previous trips I've landed up at the doors of people close to sunset and been given a bed and dinner with no hesitation. Everywhere I pass through people shout greetings and give good wishes. Tourists in their rental cars and four-wheel drives often wave as they pass by. The other morning I was interviewed and filmed briefly by a Hungarian documentary crew that I had met at a cafe in the middle of the rocky wilderness between Merzouga and the Draa valley. Funny stuff.

Coming up along the River Draa to Agdz, where I'm writing this entry, I realised just how extensive some of the damage from the recent flooding has been in this part of the country. Many roads are only partially cleared of the debris from landslides and from the flash flooding that occured. The size of rocks that could be moved by flowing water alone was truly impressive, not to mention devastating for walls and irrigation works that were in their path. Arriving in Agdz last night, I had to follow a five kilometer detour, along a newly graded piste, as a section of the main bridge into town had been washed away. It seems like a fantastic injustice to live in a land normally so deprived of rain, only to receive too much, too quickly, and have to start cultivating and building all over again.

Agdz, Morocco
Trip distance: 5514 km

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

7: Rainy days on the edge of the desert

Heavy flooding on the way south

Crossing over to Tangiers, I cleared the remarkably hassle-free passport control and customs and headed down the Atlantic coast to Rabat, a two and a half day journey along a surprisingly barren stretch of coastline. After collecting my Mauritanian visa in Rabat and enjoying a couple of evenings in the city with a group of people met through couchsurfing, I continued inland via Meknes towards the Middle Atlas mountain range. My intention had been to cross over some of the high mountain passes that lead into the Todra and Dades gorges but early rain and snowfalls haven't cooperated with my plans and instead I found that just riding along the sealed roads was a challenging enough. Even some of the main sealed roads have been cut here in the south and I'm trying to find out which route I can take back towards the Atlantic now, as I met Gerhard, a German cyclist yesterday, who had found himself cut off and roads closed with the runoff from the sodden mountains reaching into the normally dry desert region around Rissani and Merzouga.

Earlier today I was a couple of mouse clicks away from booking a flight back to Dublin. Adjusting to riding alone in Morocco has been harder than I would have imagined. The transition from an 'invisible' cyclist in the ride down through Europe, to being a very obvious outsider hasn't been a smooth one and I have found the demands of many people, particularly those under ten years of age, for sweets, money, my bicycle, and sunglasses quite a strain. Of course, it's not the first time I've been in such situations, but you are an easy target on a bicycle. While other tourists prefer air-conditioned buses, four-wheel drive vehicles, or fast motorbikes, and can therefore be more selective in what and who they choose to interact with, the cyclist has no such luxury. And, of course, this is the beauty of cycling too, that you have this proximity, that you break down barriers and are able to engage with people more readily. So I'm taking a day off to read up on how the global economy is descending into freefall and to sit back and take in a place for a day or two before packing my bags and riding on.

I've posted some photos too, just click on the link to the slideshow. I realise they are mostly of landscape rather than people. I'll try and work on that.

P.S. The above was written on a grim day in the desert. I just bought a headscarf from a group of guys that I've been hanging out with here in Erfoud for the past couple of days and they have convinced me that rather than cooking my head it will keep me cool. Inshallah. All is rosy once again.


Erfoud, Morocco

Trip distance: 5143 km

Saturday, 4 October 2008

6: On the banks of Fortress Europe

Looking across the Strait of Gibraltar towards Morocco

"You're looking a bit thin", my mother announced with slight disapproval, several sentences into our first conversation in several weeks last night. There was a short pause, followed by, "So you're going to Africa then?"

Despite several enriching visits to various regions of the continent over the past four decades, her voice retains the fears of a generation that has been bombarded by a consistently negative image of the African continent. The very name inspiring images of excrutiating poverty, 'tribal' violence, and life-threatening diseases. While in some parts such factors do have a devastating impact on many people's lives, rarely are the deeper historical root causes of these factors analysed sufficiently well, or presented clearly by the Western media. Furthermore, rare is the positive image of Africa that is presented to us. Debates about whether external factors (the legacy of colonialism, for example, or the role of Western-biased trade agreements) or internal factors (in the form of corruption, or bad governance, for example) have more influence over the other in shaping the continent's contining social, political, and economic woes remain controversial. However, behind these larger issues is a continent, countries, and peoples that, just like any other, are living their lives. As a traveler, I often think, you are arguably less susceptible to problems in many parts of Africa than in many parts of western Europe or north America, particularly when traveling in rural areas. At this point in any discussion I usually throw in my story about the three cameras that were taken whilst I and a couple of friends were swimming along the Wild Coast in South Africa a couple of years ago, only to be returned several days later after the intervention of the community leaders and the local traditional healer. I try to imagine how the same situation would play out in other settings and I doubt I'd still be taking pictures with the camera.

My cousin Mark joined me from Colorado for the last two weeks of the European leg, from Lisbon over to southern Spain. We crossed the arid landscapes of southern Portugal and Andalucia, stopping off at a number of cities enroute, including Sevilla and Cadiz, catching a famous biennial flamenco festival in the former. A number of factors led to a decision to change my crossing point from Malaga to Tarifa, where rather than crossing over to the Spanish enclave of Melilla, I'll now cross to Tangier. The principal reason for the change of plan is to allow me to pass through Morocco's capital, Rabat, to collect a visa for Mauritania, as there are currently mixed reports about being able to get a visa at the border. And if you look at a map of the region, you really don't want to be told you have to go back to Rabat for a visa. So having gotten my wheels trued, bought enough spares to build an additional bicycle, and been presented with a proper pair of new cycling shoes from Mark, as well as stocking enough peanut butter to run a small plane, I'm ready for tomorrow morning's 35-minute high-speed ferry crossing to Tangier and the next leg of the journey.

Hasta Luego!

Tarifa, Spain
Trip distance: 4331 km

Friday, 19 September 2008

5: Is it safe to eat this many cakes?

Initially I was very impressed with my new cycling partner's grasp of the Spanish language. Following a very pleasant final night in Santander with couchsurfing hosts, Belen and Manuel, Kirsty had demonstrated her proficiency in Spanish admirably well I thought. Having spent only three weeks in Cuba learning Spanish whilst cycling around the island, Kirsty now seemed sufficently qualified to lead me further along some Spanish roads and bring a hopeful ray of light to what remains for me, a linguistic desert. As the days wore on, however, I realised that key aspects of my daily routine had been completely overlooked in Kirsty's linguistic training and were simply beyond the scope of her Latin American Spanish phrasebook. At mealtimes it sufficed to establish that the meal I wanted had to have meat in it, after that it was a case of eagerly waiting to see what exactly I had ordered. Normally this wasn't much of a problem and a fried slice of some animal would duly arrive, but on one occasion in a little village called San Antolin, matters reached a head. Having spent the previous four days traversing the mightily impressive Cordillera Cantabrica and having been almost simultaneously frozen, soaked, and toasted, I was ready for some filling food. We found the only eatery that we had passed in the previous 50 km of Asturian wilderness and I sat down to a dinner of what turned out to be pig knuckle fat. With Kirsty unable to eat her own food due to her hysterical laughter, I tenderly sild my way through two of the knuckles before pushing my plate aside in a rare moment of gastronomic defeat.

Our slightly inland route westwards across northern Spain was quite spectacular, bringing us up, down, and along beautiful mountain valleys, and on occasion, past what must be some of the largest open-cast coal mines in Europe. My standard of living increased dramatically as 1-star hostals became the norm, although we'd probably have ended up as frozen corpses on a couple of occasions had we been testing the limits of our lightweight sleeping bags inside our tents. Santiago de Compostela marked the end of Kirsty's cycling foray, and she began the return pilgrimmage to Edinburgh by train and boat, while I continued south to Portugal.

In the six days it took to ride down the Portuguese coast to Lisbon, one of the stops I made was in the northern city of Porto. I was staying in a hostel there one night, having locked the door to the dormitory since it was after midnight and I had presumed that no one else was going to be turning up. I'd just fallen asleep when there was banging on the door. Bruno was from a small town on the opposite side of the country, near the Spanish border, and he entered the room with gusto, turning on lights, appearing in no way apologetic to have roused me from my much needed beauty sleep, and he proceeded into a one-way conversation at full throttle. He immediately started to warn me of the dangers that the unwary visitor faced in Porto and advised me to leave nothing on display as only last night had he had a pair of shorts and a t-shirt stolen. I cast my eye dubiously over my own scattered belongings and thought it highly unlikely that some drug crazed FC Porto fan was going to run away with my Borat-style padded lycra shorts. "One can only hope" I muttered, trying to feign tiredness and irritation at having been woken up so abruptly. Despite my attempted indifference, Bruno's life story unravelled before me - his exchange year in Poland, finding work in Portugal as a fledgling civil engineer, his country town, and his father's recurring nightmares. When he mentioned that the source of the nightmares was as a result of his father's experiences as a soldier in the Portuguese colonial army in Guinea Bissau, I became more engaged. One of the last imperial powers to release its African colonies (present day Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Guinea Bissau), I was interested to hear a Portuguese perspective on their colonial adventure. Independence for the colonies only occured after Portugal's own liberation from the dictatorship of Salazar in the early 1970s. Bruno hoped to work in Angola in a year or two as a civil engineer, but he had clearly inherited a depressing and skewed historical perspective. Regarded by many as one of the more brutal and destructive imperial powers, particularly in the period just prior to their departure, Bruno had apparently absorbed the colonial baggage as he said that the collapse and failure of the infrastracture and newly independent nations was clear evidence that the Africans did not know how to govern or main the infrastructure in their countries. Too tired to argue the point, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

I'll end this monologue with one other thought that has occured on the couple of hundred odd hours that I've been spending on my saddle over the past couple of months. Traveling by foot or on a bicycle or other such means, can help you appreciate how people can treat or view others based on first appearance. I remember passing through the industrial outskirts of Orleans several weeks back, when I saw a group of children from a nearby caravan encampment washing their clothes at a fire hydrant. The image resonated with me at the time, realising that what I regarded as the daily burden of washing my clothes by hand, if a suitable place can be found, was for these kids an everyday event. Another somewhat insightful moment occured when I was collapsing off the bike in the afternoon heat of a small coastal village in Portugal a couple of days ago. I was obviously looking the worse for wear, smeared with sweat, salt stains, and a congealed layer of sun screen, diesel fumes, and dust. I approached a passerby and in my best concoction of Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English, asked him for directions to the bread store. The man took one look at me and shaking his head and wagging his finger at me, walked resolutely on down the street. How many times I've seen similar jestures to others, yet although I was able to laugh it off, it was also a very disturbing sensation to be scorned in such a way. Of course, I can only relate on an extremely superficial level to others who experience such moments on a daily basis, but perhaps it's one good reason to get down and dirty on a bicycle.

Lisboa, Portugal
Trip distance: 3545 km

Monday, 1 September 2008

4: The never-ending hunt for porridge oats

Well I hadn´t intended to be providing weekly updates, I thought perhaps I might have done it by country instead, but at the speed I´m moving at people would probably forget the blog address in the interim. I also have an hour to kill before my Scottish cycling partner for the coming fortnight, Kirsty, arrives in on the ferry from Plymouth. I´ve got Rocinante tied up outside, but within view, here in downtown Santander where I´ve been taking some time off the bike for the past few days. Having had some pre-arranged dates made with friends for meeting up in Santander, I had several days to make the 250 km journey from San Sebastian to Santander and so I could take my time. This was fortunate as the hills themselves would have forced me to take a slower pace along this mountainous coast, but I would probably have been frustrated if I had tried to push a quicker pace. The exertion required to bring myself and the bike to the top of the hills was more than compensated for, however, by the spectacular coastline. The towns and villages in between held less appeal, especially those which have been blessed or cursed, depending on your point of view, with a fine beach. Such a feature ensures that your town will be inundated with those seeking to worship the sun-gods and will ensure your town´s urban arteries will be clogged with the daily migration from the town to the beach. The northern coastal resorts tend to attract an overwhelmingly Spanish clientele, probably driven away by the high cost of the more developed Spanish resorts along the Mediterreranean. The roads between these seasonal resorts offered sanctuary, however, and were for the most part surprisingly quiet and bereft of traffic.

Guernica is today a somewhat drab collection of modern architecture, but the town holds a very special place in the heart of many Basques. Not only was this the site where Basque elders held court in the past under an oak tree, the remains of which stand outside the present Basque parliament buildings, but it was also where Hitler´s airforce bombed the town in 1937. The facists, under General Franco, wished to destory the bridge in the town centre that provided a vital supply route for the Reds during the Spanish civil war and so they orchestrated the bombing and requested the Germans, eager to test their military equipment, as well as support Franco, to destroy the bridge. Carried out during the busy Monday afternoon market, however, not only was the bridge destroyed but so was most of the town and a total of over 2000 fatalities. This was the event that later inspired Picasso´s depiction of the bombing, now kept in Madrid.

One thing that I hadn´t understood whilst I was traveling through Euskadi was how, if the region had been so repressed by Franco, had the economy been so well developed and how northern cities, such as Bilbao, had been at the forefront of industrialisation in the mid twentieth century. A fellow I met in Santander, however, explained how Franco´s policy had actually been to develop and industrialise the Basque region to such an extent that it would be brought into the fold of Spain. This was also achieved by a type of latter day settler colony and by encouraging workers from other regions in Spain to migrate to these northern industrial areas to work and live and ultimately to breed out Basques from their own region. A very simplistic assessment of the situation, of course, and still just reflections from an ignorant passerby, but its certainly an interesting place to spend some time.

Thirty kilometres from Bilbao I crossed into Cantabria and left the Basque flags and language behind. While Santander doesn´t get much of a rating in the dog-eared photocopy I have of an out-of-date travel guide, I have really enjoyed my last few days in the city, catching up with some friends and spending time getting to know a place a little better and finally managing my first swim in the Atlantic since leaving Ireland. Destroyed by a fire in 1941, the city does at first seem to lack the old worldiness that has usually been present in the centre of cities that I´ve been passing through, but for me there is a relaxed and unpretentious charm to the city, boasted no doubt by the fact that I´ve found my first bag of porridge oats since central France.

Hasta luego!

Santander, Spain

Trip distance: 2285 km

Saturday, 23 August 2008

3: Aupa from Donostia!

The last few days in France were spent continuing along the Chemin St. Jacques, ending up at St. Jean Pied de Port. From here pilgrims usually continue across the Pyrennees via Roncevalles to Pamploma before taking an inland and less undulating route to Santiago. Wanting to travel along the northern coast of Spain, however, I took a right hand turn and came over the mountains to Euskadi, or the Basque country. In fact, I was already in the French Basque region before crossing over, so there is a cultural buffer zone when crossing through from France to Spain.

The Ikurriña, the Basque flag.

The symbols, flags, and murals calling for independence and promoting Euskal, the Basque language, are everywhere. I had taken a small road through the mountains when I was heading for San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) and I ended up sitting in the little square of Goizueta, a small village about 30 km in the hills above San Sebastian in between a couple of biblical rain storms. People were polite and some passed greetings when I was making up lunch, but the surroundings and the overt displays of nationalism, including some flags for ETA, the Basque paramilitary group, were more reminiscent for me of the Balkans, or northern Ireland in the past, and hard to grasp the transition that I had made in such a short distance from southern France. There is, of course, a historically close association between the political conflict in northern Ireland and Euskadi and wandering around last night I came across an Irish bar with the decor theme being posters from both sides of the fence, spanning the past 30 years. Very interesting, and the pint of Guinness was good too.

Donostia, Euskadi
Trip distance: 2032km

Sunday, 17 August 2008

2: Pilgrims, hills, and a non-practicising Irish Protestant

Since leaving Lyon a week ago I crossed back over to the Loire valley and continued upstream to Le Puy en Velay. Le Puy is a popular starting point for the French pilgrimmage route Chemin de St. Jacques, which joins up with its Spanish counterpart, the Camino de Santiago at the border at St. Jean Pied de Port. At the hostel in Le Puy there were many hikers arriving and departing on the 1500 kilometer pilgrimmage to Santiago, including a German fellow in my dormitory who had started walking from Vienna! Some do the walk for religious reasons but many just like the idea of following a historic route that has been traversed for almost 1000 years and in more recent times a substantial tourist industry has been created around the route. The contrast between walking and cycling is much the same as for cycling versus driving a car or riding a motorbike. Along the route I've met people traveling by horse or on foot and where I've passed through in one day on the bike, takes them four or five days. I haven't been following the path itself however, just the roads that run near to the path.

Following the St. Jacques route has been a different traveling experience to the roads I traveled along before Le Puy. Since the route runs a path through mostly rural areas and small villages, locals and tourists alike usually assume that if you're carrying a backpack or have bags strapped to your bike, then you're a pilgrim of some description. As a result there is often a much more open and spontaneous approach towards engaging in conversation than I experienced farther north. Similarly, you're sharing a common goal with other cyclists and hikers, or at least a common destination, and there is a more immediate solidarity between you all. Over the past few days I've met and re-met several groups of people; including one cycling group from central France who insisted on me joining them for lunch on a couple of occasions. Since they are traveling with a support van their lunches are much more substantial affairs than I'm used to and sampling the local wine was particularly enjoyable, especially when you are already partially dehydrated or have a 20 km descent immediately after lunch, like I did on the Aubrac mountains the other day. I'm surprised in one way because I had suspected that I might not enjoy following the Chemin de St. Jacques, not generally being overly amenable to pre-ordained routes too much. But on a bike you're not actually on the route for starters and you can choose a pick and mix approach to which roads you want to follow or places that you want to visit, so there is some flexibility. Following the route also ensures that you stay in rural areas most of the time, which is the best place for cycling if you want to avoid the busy roads linking larger towns that are particularly busy at this time of the year.

Achieving less time in Purgatory, however, is not, excuse the pun, a walk over and since leaving the Loire valley in Le Puy and having crossed over the southern part of the Massif Central, I've realised that you don't have to be in the Alps or Pyrennees to have big hills in France. In fact, the hills I passed over in Aubrac are twice the height of the section of the Pyrennees where I will pass through, which someone thankfully pointed out to me at the summit rather than the bottom the other day. In order to try and prolong the life of my knee joints I ride in the lowest gears, which is at, or marginally above, walking speed, usually about a breathtaking 6 kph up the steeper hills. Since these hills can be up to 15 km long, I need to somehow pass the time as I snail upwards whilst gaining ecclesiastical brownie points. In this regard I have found singing to be the best form of distraction, both for me and for anyone else within earshot. I have a number of tunes that get a lot of airtime and suffer from many deformities in my rendition of them. Two particular favourites at the moment include 'Take me home country roads' (particularly the Toots and the Maytals version that I was recently introduced to and lucky to hear live before leaving Ireland), as well as Ladysmith Black Mambazo's version of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' - complete with all the jungle sounds. It's at times like this that it truly comes home to me how inadequate my mental lyrics library is, so if you have any suggestions for good cycling tunes, send a copy of the lyrics my way.

Cahors, France
Trip distance: 1546 km

Saturday, 9 August 2008

1: Salut from Lyon!

In the end I didn't need to utilise my midwifery skills when I stayed with Trisha the night before catching the ferry to France. The good news is that I got a text message yesterday morning in the hills above Lyon that Trisha and John had a baby girl - Charlie Eilish Moore - last Thursday morning, so congratulations Trisha and John and bon courage avec parenthood!

Following a very bountiful 'full Irish' breakfast I left Trisha's two weeks ago today and took the 20 hour sailing from Rosslare over to Cherbourg. From there I headed via the Normandy D-day landing beaches across Normandy and after a few days I joined the river Loire in Orleans and then followed it upstream to Roanne in central France. I then left the relative flatness of the Loire to cross over to Lyon and the Rhone valley to take a couple of days off the bike and catch up with a couple of friends. Following an exceptionally hot couple of days in Normandy, rain and thunderstorms have been a pretty consistent feature of the trip so far, but this is often more welcoming than the hot sun, especially on the hills.

In Normandy I happened to follow a route that retraced the allied advance into that region after the D-day landings on 6th June 1944. It's still a very humbling experience for me to witness these sites that have now overgrown the destruction and death that once took place here, and to visit the cemeteries where the dead are buried, almost always young guys several years younger than myself. You are also aware, however, that in such situations it is always the victors who get to immortalise their dead and I wonder what efforts have been made to help the German families remember there dead youngsters too? Similarly, in the British military cemetery at St. Charles de Percy, I was reminded how often the contribution of Irish soldiers to the Allied cause was overlooked at a time when the Irish government and, in particular, the then prime minister De Valera, was trying to maintain a facade of neutrality. I recalled that it has only been in the very recent past that WW2 veterans in Ireland have been officially supported in their memorial services. Many of the headstones bore Irish surnames and in the cemetery registry book several of the dead soldiers had addresses in the Irish Republic, these just representing one small part of the numbers who perished during the war.

Just before reaching Lyon I managed to meet up with Celine, a friend from Dublin, and her wonderful family at her mother's farm near the village of Montrottier in the hills above Lyon. They were all about to head back to Ireland the following morning but I had a great evening re-learning how to socialise and maintain conversations for more than five minutes. Celine's parents met when her father Brian came over from Ireland to work on the farm during the summer holidays, picking strawberries and then tobacco later in the season. Times have changed, however, in many of these small farming areas and of the eleven farms that used to exist in the valley, only three can now operate on a full-time basis, with these three farms renting the land of the other farms that have gone out of operation. The beauty of these rural areas can conceal the difficulty that people have in finding employment and continuing to live there. In addition, there is the familiar pressure of people moving in from outside the area, buying properties to use for just a couple of weeks a year, thereby forcing local people out of the housing market.

Apart from Orleans, which I passed through on an empty wet Sunday afternoon, Lyon is the first city that I've stopped in or indeed gone through whilst in France. So I've been making the most of visiting local watering holes and enjoying urban features, including this internet cafe, as it has been surprisingly hard to access the internet in rural France, even in decent sized towns. Well I'll go now and make the most of it before leaving tomorrow for Le Puy en Velay and the start of the Camino de Santiago.
Lyon, France
Trip distance: 1106km