December 10, 2009

Crossing the finish line

So I left Petra, a lovely jewel hidden in the middle of the desert and headed towards the southern coast of Jordan on the Red Sea. I was cycling through the middle of nowhere, no houses, no people, no plants, no water, just a strip of asphalt running through the mountainous desert of southern Jordan. After about 75 km I passed a small village and of course the sky started pouring stones. I tried to keep the wise words of the elder on my mind, but I still wanted to strangle those little hellians. Before I knew it, I had lost all of my 1600 vertical meters and I was sitting at a Pizza Hut in Aqaba at sea level. The next day I took the ferry from Aqaba (Jordan) to Nuweiba (Egypt) as the only overland route involved crossing through Israel (and I was trying to avoid the stamp).

So my time was rapidly coming to an end (my flight back to the states was less than 7 days away!). I was calculating how much time it would take to cycle to Cairo and assuming everything went smoothly, I could probably arrive in Cairo the day before my flight departed. But the thought of ending my trip in a smog congested chaotic city seemed rather anti-climatic...I wanted to cycle through a proper finish line with applause, champagne, ribbons and those olympic steps for 2nd and 3rd place. Then I would put on my sponsor hat, swig a Sprite and finish it off with a point to the sky. So I decided to just cycle to the beach and spend my last days relaxing on the warm sand, snorkeling over coral reefs, eating proper food (anything other than hummus and falafel). I would still drink my victory Sprite and I would still be wearing my Kyrgyzstan hat (the fact that the hat is still with me is amazing).

So I did just that, I spent the night in a bungalow directly on the beach in Nuweiba (serenaded to sleep by crashing waves for all of $2/night).

Then I cycled what was to be my last real day on the bike, from Nuweiba to Dahab. I cycled up and over a mountain pass and then continued straight to the Red Sea. It wasn't exactly the crowd I was hoping for, just a few windsurfers and some sea birds. I spent a few minutes somewhat mesmerized by the crashing waves, warm sun, and people riding the wind while grazing the top of the water. I sat down at a restaurant and ordered my victory sprite and a pizza.

Could I really be finished? It's hard to believe I won't be continuing to the next village on my bicycle, hard to believe tomorrow I'll be wearing box briefs under my zip-off pants instead of those lovely padded shorts, hard to believe it's been nearly 11 months since I left the states (before Obama even took office) with two duffel bags, a backpack and some new shoes (you should see my shoes now). Which brings me to a reflective moment. Thinking back on this trip, one word that comes to mind and probably best describes my cycling adventures is EPIC!

Let's see....I crossed the equator twice, barely able to sleep in only my boxers without wetting the bed with sweat, I've had my chest, fingers and toes hooked to suction cups in an Indonesian hospital only to have the nurse tell me that I was 'very tired', I drank moonshine with a Chinese man over lunch, had a Tazmanian devil plague my stomach in western China, shivered in my 15° F sleeping bag (wearing every layer of clothing I owned) at 16,000 ft in India, stank up a Pakistan bus so bad the driver stopped and sprayed everyone with an aerosol can, had my rainfly completely torn off my tent by wind on the Tibetan plateau, went 2½ weeks without a shower in the Pamir mountains, climbed a 18,500 ft pass on my bicycle, covertly slept in a military watch tower in Tajikistan, had my bike completely caked in mud laying atop 3 sheep struggling to breath in the back of a station wagon in Kyrgyzstan, spent the night huddled over a hotplate with a 75 yr old Turkish guy while the snow fell outside, fought a fever and potential malaria in 120° F weather by pitching my tent in a hotel room, which led to 3 days in a rundown Tajik hospital, had my rainfly completely demolished by kids throwing rocks in Jordan, held a dancing tribute to Michael Jackson in Tajikistan, avoided Pakistanie bombs by 1 week and missed a Kashmiri hand grenade by 3 hours.

I've slept all over the place...with local families in their houses, in yurts, apartments, schools, gardens, abandoned houses, random fields, restaurants, mountainous meadows, snowy plateaus, gas stations, highway medians, hostels galore, roofs, bed bug infested mattresses, you name it. My poor stomach has fought a never ending battle with every bacteria in existence, I've witnessed cultures ethnically morphing as I traveled from country to country, I've mastered the art of communicating with my hands, learned how to wash my clothes in a bucket and dry them while riding my bike, bargaining has become second nature (although the Indian post office still ranks as the weirdest) and it will be quite the shock when I start to argue over the price of a sandwich in America ('sir...I'm just a waitress and the price is fixed'). I've exchanged smiles with nearly everyone, shook hands with about a million different people, my body has slowly morphed into a cycling machine (thighs and buns of steel), my tires have rolled over 15 different countries, 11,000 km (6,835 miles) on 3 different continents, over desert, jungle, mountains, snow (and still without a single puncture!). I've climbed over 118,520 vertical meters (388,850 ft). That's enough to climb the Empire State building 311 times or enough to climb Mt Everest from sea level 13 times. I've spent over 685 hours with my butt atop my Brooks saddle (my butt cheeks are clearly imprinted on the seat). Which brings me back to my initially question: Could I really be finished? I'm walking away from this experience with such a positive impression and optimistic outlook on life, I've grown so much on this trip, gaining experiences and perspective that will be with me for the rest of my life! With my mind constantly scheming each time I see a map, I know it's only a matter of time before my feet get restless and my wheels are rolling again.

At this point I'm disassembling my bicycle and putting it into a box, consolidating my panniers into one big duffel bag, and trying to see as much as possible before my flight in only 3 days! I hope you all enjoyed reading this blog and I hope to see you all very soon.

What a cool language

The Nile River in Cairo

Sadly enough, I turned down this street, right into Cairo traffic

I love that Cornflakes have to say' Free from Pig Products and it's Derivatives'

Mosque in Cairo

The Sphinx

The Pyramids

Dig it!

December 9, 2009

The Holy Land

So I took a 4 day sidetrip to Israel (or did I?). Trying to avoid the Israeli stamp and clear my tracks of any evidence of visiting the holy land turned out to be quite the hassle. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, here's the deal: Some muslim countries absolutely hate Israel (i.e. Iran wants to blow Israel off the map) and as a result, will not issue you a visa if your passport has any proof or suggestions that you visited the Holy Land (countries include: Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia). This meant not only did I need to avoid the Israel stamp, I needed to manage not getting stamped out of Jordan (as this is essentially the same as an Israeli stamp). I'd heard from many fellow travelers that you just simply asked the immigration officer to stamp a seperate sheet of paper. wasn't quite that simple. Turns out there is only one border crossing which will facilitate the people wishing to avoid the Israeli stamp stigma. At this and only this crossing which runs straight through the West Bank, Jordan doesn't technically stamp anyone out of their country (although you still pay the departure tax) but when you reach the Israeli border, you must be adamant against avoiding the stamp (I met one kid who was stamped into Israel before he could ask otherwise). This special request, of course, raises suspicion as to why you would want to avoid the stamp and leads to being 'detained' for hours with other suspicious characters (namely Palestenians wanting to return to their families) until the interrogation room and interrogator could hear your case. Israel won't just let anyone into their country, they are paranoid beyond belief (and rightfully so) and they suspect and assume that everyone wants to take them down. I met a jewish kid from New York who was detained because he said his middle name was Allen, but with a nasal clog, it may have sounded like he said 'Ali', a significant figure in Islamic history. Wow....I was detained for 2.5 hours and when my interrogation time came, they asked about my visit to Pakistan, Tajikistan, Syria and Lebanon. At first I thought it to be a little much but then again, I've heard that America's immigration officers ask you to check:
'Are you a terrorist?'

So I sucessfully avoided the stamp, and within 2 hours I had a pocked full of Shekels (the coolest name for a currency in the world) and I was feasting on turkey (a proper one), stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy cooked over a hot plate, macaroni and cheese (hot plate) and pasta salad. It was Thanksgiving afterall and the Americans abroad united in a hostel in Jerusalem to enjoy the event (the other foreigners were amazed at the amount of food we consumed).

Jerusalem is an amazing place. If not, simply due to the fact that it holds so much religious significance to so many different people. In one corner you have hisitic jews head banging like they're listening to rock music, with one hand on the temple's wall and the other holding open one of their many holy books (an amazing sight to behold!), in the other city corner you have masses of muslims who come to pray at the Noble Sanctuary (Dome of the Rock) which is one of the holiest sights in Islam (next to Mecca and Medina) which is the location of the prophet Mohammed's ascent into heaven (with the angel Gabriel). So it's not only one of the holiest of places for both Jews and Muslims, it's also, for Christians, the location of the Church of the Holy Wisdom where an inscription tells of Jesus's birth to Mary and the location where Abraham was told by God to sacrifice Isaac his oldest son in a test of faith. This place has a holy feel to it, and it's seperated into a Muslim area, Christian area and a Jewish area. On top of that, modern day Jerusalem is crawling with tourists and vendors of all sorts of gizmos and useless crap. This is probably the most American tourists I've seen in one place thus far.

Orthodox Jews worshipping at the Western Wall

Streets of Jerusalem at night

Jerusalem with Dome of the Rock

The next morning, still shaking off the Turkey hangover, I took a 45 minute ride to Tel Aviv, a very modern Israeli city on the Mediterranean Coast. By the way, you could probably circum-navigate Israel in about 5 hours (it's a really small country).

Tel Aviv

My four day Israel tour was up and after a quick visit to Jesus's manger in Bethlehem, I was back in Jordan with a pocket full of Dinars and a passport devoid of an Israeli visit.

Remeber how I mentioned I was hit by my first Jordanian rock on the first day I entered the country? Well....Jordan kids are the worst stone throwers I've ever seen! They come running to the road, waving and yelling 'welcome' (with one hand behind their backs). As soon as I turn my back, the stones come flying! I've gotten really good at avoiding the situation all together, never turning my back to the kids, changing to the opposite lane of traffic so there is another car inbetween me and the kids, or just simply ducking my head and cycling really fast (they hardly ever actually hit me). So I camped the other night in a small patch of flat land, depressed from the surrounding road just within a small village in southern Jordan. I didn't arrive at the village until about 10 pm, so I couldn't see extremely well. I awoke the next morning promptly at 7 am to the sound of smacks on my tent. Sure enough, my tent was being pelted with stones from kids on their way to school, like 50 of them and some of the stones were not small at all. Once the hail storm was over, I cautiously exited my tent (wishing I had a pellet gun) and found a large gash in my rainfly (rendering my rainfly basically worthless) and my bike had 2 badly bent spokes. And of course the spokes were on the cassette side, which required removal of the cassette (a timely process). That wasn't exactly the best foot to start the morning out on, and my mood turned pretty foul. Jordanian kids were now the enemy and I wanted them to feel my pain. To know how difficult it is to travel in a foreign land, not to mention having to worry about getting a concusion from little hellians. It wasn't until I reached Petra later that afternoon and explained the events to an elder Jordanian man smoking a shisha that I felt better. He put it to me like this....'I goto your country and someone says' [at this point he makes a gun with his fingers and points it at my face] 'give me your money. Here is no problem'. And he was exactly right, I probably woundn't last 5 days riding a bicycle through America before I was jumped. If all I have to worry about are kids throwing stones, I've got it pretty good.

So I spent the next day reliving scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in Petra with my new Italian friend, Aliche (Ali-chey).

This narrow siq begins to open up and then....


Me in the siq

The Monastery in Petra

Graffitti on the wall near Bethlehem

yasir arafat's grave in the west bank

Westbank wall graffiti

Baby goat in Petra

Bedouin twins listening to my IPOD