Journeys

$30 and a Dream

For most competitors Ironman Wales will begin at 7am on Sunday the 11th.  For me it began Sunday the 4th when I left Glasgow.  I had a bike, $30 and my gear.  I was up against 400 plus miles, nearly continuous rain and a persistent headwind.   I had no places to stay and no tent.  I didn’t even have a map actually, but when you’ve come this close to catching a dream, obstacles like that are no obstacles at all.

The biking was the simplest and the hardest.  You move your feet in circles and you move forward.  All you have to do is not stop.  Fortunately at this point my legs are pretty strong, unfortunately sitting on a bike seat that long leaves me feeling like a eunuch.  It’s mind numbing as well, especially as I did the ride solo.  The roads I took were heavily trafficked, which would make listening to music akin to Russian roulette.  The result, a lot of time alone with your thoughts in the rain, is as hard on the mind as those persistent circles are on the legs.

I was lucky in regards to shelter.  Between the two endpoints, where I had friends waiting to help, I relied on the kindness of strangers.  Miraculously, I found someone to give me a place to stay every night, even if sometimes it wasn’t until midnight or even 2am.  Still, the amazing hospitality of these kind strangers inspired me, and more often than not even provided me with bodily sustenance.  I was fed pumpkin curry, fresh baked banana bread, crumpets and pancakes.  I even had my lunch packed for me!

One of the lovely places I was lucky enough to call home for a night.

I often had to stop for directions, but some people went so far as to print me maps.  When I needed water, bars always refilled me. Even the infamous Starbucks and McDonalds did their part, providing me with free internet.  Like making a cake from a box mix, just add concentrated power of will.

At least I know it's downhill from here.

My body hurts everywhere, everywhere I can still feel that is, but here I am.  The Ironman is just three days away and the forecast for that day is storms with high winds.  I like a challenge.  It’s possible they’ll cancel it if there’s thunder and lightening.  Even that doesn’t really matter.  There will always be another race to run, another mountain to climb.  In the end, it really is the journey, not the destination.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

T. Roosevelt

Categories: Biking, Ironman, Journeys, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Hard Times

Except for the lives of shipping magnates and Paris Hilton, my life is as close to permanent vacation as they it comes. Still, while I can’t ever really claim to suffer like the downtrodden workers of a Dicken’s novel, there are hard times.  Take the other day for example:

When I left Glasgow it was raining, not an auspicious beginning, but waiting for the rain to stop in Scotland can leave one waiting a rather long time. Things rapidly went from bad to worse, when in less than 30 minutes I heard the whistle of my first flat tire.  I though it was going to be one of those days. As it turns out, I was right.

My goal was to make it 100 miles (160km) to Carlisle where I hoped to couch-surf.  Not the greatest of plans, but my twenty dollar, four day budget didn’t leave a lot of room for five start hotels.  Now I’ve biked 100 miles before, but as I learned that day, biking 100 miles alone with heavy bags in the rain is a different sort of experience.  To top it off, when I arrived 100 miles later, soaked to the bone at 10 o’clock, I found out I was homeless, not just in general, but for that night as well.

2200 Calories for one British pound = Extreme budget traveling

Now, I know that most people would rather not have an experience like I did that day. I don’t blame them either.  There was a time when something as small as a speeding ticket or a missed flight would leave me feeling as upset as the Count of Monte Cristo.  Yet strangely enough I didn’t have a bad day.  Of course I’d rather have been sipping a pina colada served in a baby coconut that was picked by a wild money, but now, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the difficult circumstances, I feet challenged and invigorated.

For those who are looking, beautiful days always come around, but the same is true for the bad days as well.  As it’s still raining after three days, I’m looking forward to better days even now, but in the meantime I’m comforted and strengthened by the satisfaction of pursuing something worth more than money.

Even rainy days present opportunities.

Some months ago when I lost my wallet in Spain, someone said they thought they saw me biking through the rain, but that it couldn’t have been me.  The person they saw was smiling. Strange, perhaps, but for, a me a better way.

“I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

St. Paul

Categories: Biking, Ironman, Journeys, Words | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wonders of Scotland

Most visitors to the United Kingdom never get past London, and if they do it’s usually only for a short tour or day trip to the English countryside.  In my opinion that’s a tragedy.  For I have found few places on Earth I would rather be than Scotland.

The reasons I love Scotland are plentiful: it has a rugged beauty the closely matches my imagined ideal; it is an out of the way place, leaving it largely unspoiled by the flocks of tourists that migrate to countries like France and Italy annually; and, it has cheap and excellent shortbread, my favorite cookie.

That would be plenty of reasons to love anywhere, but the truth is that above all else I love Scotland for the people who live there.  I could give countless examples, but my recent arrival and the day I had yesterday are a perfect example of what one can expect from Scotland…

Proving yet again that I’m less responsible than a fifth grader, I failed to transfer money into my bank account and thus arrived in Edinburgh needing not only a place to stay but without even a way to pay for food.  Fortunately I met some wonderful Scots in Sevilla earlier this summer who not only gave me a roof over my head, but food, drink and entertainment.  Hence, I awoke well rested yesterday to yet another wonderful meal, this time of Scottish porridge.

Not only does it taste good, but it comes in an amazing box!

 

After I’d eaten my fill I’d decided to head out on bike for Glasgow, where yet another friend from my travels awaited my arrival.  That plan went smoothly for nearly an hour when the bike path I was following turned into a gravely trail that chewed through my tire tube like a rat through cheese. After about three flats, someone stopped to help me and give me patches, which came as a great relief as I was out of my own.  I then spent a lovely half-an-hour chatting about traveling before I continued forgetting all about my irresponsible behavior.

Unfortunately, my bike wasn’t done throwing fits and I soon had another flat, only this time the valve broke so patches were useless.  All I needed was a spare tube, which of course, I didn’t have.  So after this tragic and completely foreseeable event, I was stranded.  Still, having watched Cast Away, I knew that if Tom Hanks can survive for four years alone on an island; I had no reason to panic.  I was right too, rather than having to do an Edgar Alan Poe imitation and sleep in the gutter; I managed to flag down another kind Scot, this one on a bike.  I asked for a bike store; he asked what I needed.  One free tube and assisted flat change later and I was on my way – to the train station.  There, yet another kind stranger helped me find the train and then let me use his cellphone to text my friend that I would be arriving, most unexpectedly, rather a bit later than planned. Naturally I arrived in Glasgow to find only more warm hospitality from friend and stranger alike.  All in all, it was just an average day in Scotland, except perhaps, for my extremely poor planning.

In New York and many other places in the modern world, we have adopted an every man for himself attitude.  Strangers are met with skepticism, hesitance and even fear.  To be someplace where you’re membership in the human race is enough to entitle you to warmth and kindness makes Scotland someplace truly exceptional and a joy to visit.

This may look like scenic countryside, but it's actually a park within Edinburgh!

 

Categories: Biking, Journeys, Scotland, Travel, Words | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

The Other Ibiza

Ibiza, not too many places have such a one dimensional reputation.  To the average traveler Ibiza represents party central, mega-clubs with mad parties that play host to every kind of excess.  Truth be told it’s a reputation that’s well deserved.  The first time I came here I didn’t sleep or eat for three days and did all kinds of things that I’d never mention in a blog.  The only problem is, that’s just part of the story.  Ibiza also happens to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, and given the amount of traveling I’ve done I don’t feel absurd making that claim.

Since my arrival a week ago I haven’t set foot in club or visited any of the uber-popular spots.  This isn’t out of some stuck up belief that I’m too good for a crazy party (I’m not) nor is it because I’m extremely poor (I am).  The real reason is that I’ve been having far too good a time enjoying the piles of amazing, healthy and inexpensive forms of entertainment this island plays host to.

As is so often the case I’m forced to choose from among far too many amazing experiences, for this post I’ll just focus on one day out of the seven I’ve been here.  This particular day was last Friday the 17th of June 2011.  It started off slowly, which is how I like my days to start.  I woke up just in time to say hi to the morning and share some refreshments with my neighbors at the campground.  Then, I started off the afternoon by heading to a random beach. Fortunately picking a random beach here can have only one of three results: nice, really nice or perfection. This particular day had perfection on the menu.

I didn't want to seem creepy so this is the closest picture of the beach I have...

Time on the beach was dived up between climbing around on the rocks, sunning myself like a lizard and a dose or Ironman training.  That’s right I haven’t forgotten!  I practiced my swimming and was even lucky enough to get some lessons from a friend.  The training turned out to be more fun than usual as our snorkeling masks allowed us to be entertained by schools of fishes and even an octopus.  The only off note was some unwanted affection from a jellyfish who kept a small part of my arm as a souvenir.

The random beach was on the east side of the island, which meant a trip west in order to catch the sunset.  My trusty navigator suggested a shortcut which, after an ignored “prohibido” sign, turned into some intense off-roading in a rented Peugeot.  I know this sounds like one of those exaggerations that posers make when they want to make their vacations sound cooler, but for 20 minutes I felt like Jason Bourne.  I had to make the passengers get out of the car since I’d rather drive off a cliff alone than with my friends on board.  The turns were so tight I had to take some in reverse and the trail so narrow I had to choose between tree branches and cliffs (not a tough choice really).  It was so intense my shins were sweating, but in the end we made it through unscathed. Unfortunately “we” didn’t include our little rental car which suffered from some serious post-traumatic stress.  All I can say is that it’s good car rental agencies don’t look at the bottoms of the cars they rent out; that scratch removing cream is a spectacular invention.

Happy to be alive we arrived at the beach in time for a sunset that did not disappoint.  A group of people had gathered like the angels in Wings of Desire to stop and stare as the sun danced with the horizon and the clouds for over a half an hour.

Who needs art museums?

Having had our fill of adrenaline, it was time for some fine food and drink.  Pizza and Sangria filled that role and the evening ended with a beautiful calm that mirrored the calm of the morning.  The only thing that made it better was knowing that the next day would bring more of the same…

Categories: Journeys, Spain, Travel | Tags: , | 1 Comment

My Favorite Place so Far

One of the questions I’m most often asked is “What is your favorite city so far?”  As with so many questions about favorites, finding an answer is somewhere between hard and impossible.  It begs a thousand questions in return:  In what way? To live or to visit? For a day or a week?  All are responses looking for clarification and rightfully so, since more often than not the question could better be worded “where should I go?” or “where would I have fun?” Nevertheless, excuses and wishy-washy responses make for poor reading, so I’ll attempt an answer.

My favorite place so far is Sevilla.

Sevilla, a city I hadn’t even planned on visiting (see my last post), but that kept me hostage for almost a week.  What makes it my favorite?  Is it the old and glorious architecture?  That would be a sophisticated response, but the truth is I hardly went out while I was there and didn’t even take a single good picture.  The Flamenco and the nightlife of the city are famous, but I got lost on the way to both Flamenco shows I tried to attend and barely set foot in a bar. I never went to a museum, the famous tower was closed for no apparent reason and the closest I came to a restaurant was one euro tapas night at the Andalucían equivalent of TGIFridays.

Alright, maybe I did get one good picture...

Now architecture and cuisine would be reasonable reasons for picking a favorite city, but the truth is I’ve never found a substitute for meeting interesting and good people and in this, my experience in Sevilla was second to none. From the moment I arrived in Sevilla till the last moments when I headed for the train, I met one wonderful and fascinating person after another. Some of them worked there and some were guests; some funny, some serious, but all beautiful.

When I lived in worked at New York, I ate at some of the world’s best and most expensive restaurants, but I’ll take cheap tapas with a side of love and friendship over filet mignon with a hint of cynical any day of the year.  That’s extreme, but I’ll go farther, I had a better time washing other people’s dirty dishes than gazing at Van Goghs, because of who I was with.

I caught this photo of the people of Sevilla parading right beneath my window.

Now I’m not against sightseeing or visiting museums, they’re essential parts of traveling and seeing a postcard of Notre Dame can never substitute for sitting in the cathedral’s pews, but it’s human hands that make cathedrals and paintings and it’s the human element that makes these things meaningful.  Even the great pyramid is no more than a speck of dust when compared to a mountain, but that’s missing the point isn’t it? Cities aren’t collections of stones and buildings; they’re collections of people and their creations.

You can travel the world and never experience it.  Last week I visited England, France, Austria, Scotland, Poland, Israel, Canada, the US and Finland all from a couch in Sevilla.  No tour bus could have shown me more, because you can’t see the world by simply looking through a window. Sevilla reminded me of this and gave me memories I’ll carry forever. That’s why it’s my favorite.

Categories: Journeys, Spain, Words | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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