Thumbs up with an avocado and two tortillas..

As I sat propped upon a rock next to a trickling mountain stream I tried to think about nothing. Instead, after a last minute change in plans, I couldn’t help but contemplate how I would get back to Madrid to collect all my belongings. I’m in the middle of the sierras where I’ve spent the past few days, 12kms or more from the nearest town and my mobile went flat yesterday. I’ve got two tortillas, an avocado and an orange. Gathering the last of my thoughts and my backpack I inhale one last breath of mountain air and decide to beat it.

It’s early Sunday morning and at this hour there’s no one driving back down the winding mountain road. I get a few strange glances from those who pass heading to the start of the hiking trails. It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to implement my hitchhiking contingency plan this time.

When I arrive in the little town a few hours later I’m told the bus will pass in 5-6 hours. I’m not really in the mood for being stationary so after a quick coffee I keep on moving. I know that this road connects with the one that goes directly to Madrid 30 something kilometers further on in the larger town of Arco de Avila.

By the time I decide to stop walking the midday sun is sweltering, I calculate it’s still at least 23km to Avila and I’ve begun to get a little peckish. Here, there’s enough room for a passing car to stop safely and I welcome the opportunity to rest and prepare an avocado wrap.

As the cars pass I pop out my thumb and put on my best please-pick-me-up-I’m-not-a-serial-killer face. And for the better part of an hour, to no avail. Finally an old man driving the classic small town pick-up van stops to offer me a ride. His reaction is priceless and says something in Spanish roughly translated to, “Holy shit! What valiance!’ Followed by, ‘Shit lady you’ve got two balls as big as…’ Suffice to say he was surprised to encounter me that day.

Weaving down the mountain I try my best to keep pace with his strong southern accent. This is where learning Spanish in AndalucĂ­a – despite initial recommendations against it – finally paid off. Words were partial and silent consonants could easily slip you up. A few kilometers later he’d regained composure, improved articulation and eased up on the ‘joders.’

He motions to the backseat where a tattered leather sunhat and wooden shepherd staff lay. He explains that he’s just coming back from mushroom foraging. One of his favorite sports – where it’s nothing but him, his small cloth sack and the fresh mountain air. Perfect for thinking and clearing the mind. Once upon a time he lived in the city – now he enjoys the simplicity of mountain life.

We talk about family – he has a partner and two dogs, they couldn’t have children but he doesn’t seem to mind. He carries the stereotypical Spanish passion for food – with all his hand gesturing I’m worried for a moment he might lose the road but he tones it down around bends ensuring at least one hand is on the wheel.

I notice we pass the turnoff for his village where I was going to continue my afternoon hike down the mountain. He hushes me to not worry and drives out of his way to drop me at the bus stop.

I run my finger over the column marked ‘Domingo’ under the heading for transportation; direction Madrid. The clock on the wall above the notice board reads 14:35 – just under two hours before the next bus. Right now I’m not sure if I can be bothered to hitchhike the remaining distance and could do with respite from the searing near summer sun. As a final effort before the siesta I wander past the bus station in the direction to the plaza mayor to investigate. It takes all over 10 minutes to circumnavigate and boasts a church, a castle, a romantic bridge and 50 years of judia production.

I settle on occupying a small patch of grass under a tree in front of the bus station while I contemplate my next move. To hitchhike or to wait for the bus? From experience I know that I make decisions better after a small nap. And there’s no point rushing – I’ll probably have to wait a few hours anyway before I can get in to the apartment to get my things in Madrid.

I notice a small van approach the station and the person in front waves. I look around and, spotting no one, realise they’re waving at me. I’m surprised to see it’s Adrian, the man who picked me up earlier, with a woman in the passenger seat and small dog in the back. Julia jumps from the van, grabs my hand, greets me with two kisses and introduces herself as Adrian’s wife. She’d become preoccupied as he told her my story over lunch and she insisted that they return to look for me. Honestly, ‘Yes,’ I was a little bit hungry and after 4 days in the mountains I would really enjoy a shower. A home cooked lunch, freshening up and Spanish hospitality was an offer I simply couldn’t refuse. If I wanted I could spend the night and head to Madrid in the morning but I told them I’d prefer to keep moving, catching the next bus at 17:00. Not a problem; they’d drop me back.

The town of Bohoyo felt familiar. Like those I’d walked through on the Camino de Santiago two years earlier where time had apparently forgotten to pass. Julia and Adrian’s house was made from stone and the wooden balcony looked like it might collapse should someone stand on it. Standing outside only revealed half it’s charm. Inside the rooms were small and the ceilings were low. There was enough room to accommodate two or three families but now the extra rooms were kept for visitors and family.

As I showered they sat on the stone bench in front of the house. I’d decided to skip the next bus – electing to take the last one at 20:00 so that Julia and Adrian could show me the lesser known secrets of their rural town. At the local cafeteria a woman with red curly hair smiled as she greeted me, ‘You must be the Australian.’ I suppose news travels fast in these parts. The only other patrons were four old men playing dominos around a plastic covered table. Two were brothers, one the father of the waitress, and another the town mayor. Julia generally introduced my presence – she was evidently proud to have a foreign guest and welcomed the opportunity to show off her English skills.

In the late spring the snow had started to melt from the mountains causing the river water level to rise. Now the water gushed passed the bridge and through the waterways that ran through the small cobbled streets. Aside the prettiest part of the river nestled a small bar where I met, what I can only assume were, the remaining residents of Bohoyo. The custodians of the tavern were four brothers; sons of the man playing dominos and siblings of the cafeteria waitress. They introduced themselves as they appeared in succession, one-by-one, from inside the wooden building. The eldest had also traveled – visiting Thailand and the Caribbean. He wanted to come to Australia one day but rubbed his thumb and his forefingers together, shrugged and raised his eyebrows – the universal signal for ‘but that’s expensive.’

The mayor’s wife was also there with the other ladies of the village. While the men played dominos they’d gathered to play bridge. The mayor’s wife signaled to Julia to join to which she replied, ‘But I don’t know how to play.’ ‘You’ll have to learn one day,’ came the response with a warm smile. The ladies laughed as they chatted and recounted stories from their youth.

Julia wrote down her email and phone number should I decide to come back to Bohoyo – apparently it was lovely in summer and early spring when the valley was in bloom and now I had friends there. Deciding it was better to be earlier rather than later we made our way to the bus station with plenty of time to spare. With time to kill we strolled to the castle lookout. Cranes had constructed their nests atop the turrets and flew in and out presumably with the next delivery of newborns.

At some point during the day I’d lost some confidence – perhaps in people in general. There’s a little more to it – ask me in person and I’ll fill you in. A friend once gave me a great analogy she’d learned from her dance teacher - she’d said that when you encounter the awkward part between songs when everyone leaves the dance floor, when you’re feeling vulnerable and exposed, you’ve got to embrace the discomfort. Go back to something you know, a move that’s repetitive, but whatever you do don’t leave the space! Because if you do that then you’re not allowing yourself to be open to the next dance, to meet someone new, and for something great to happen.

It might not have been monumental but meeting Julia and Adrian helped the transition out of an otherwise awkward place and renewed my belief that people are generally good. On the bus I plugged my headphones in my ears and selected my favorite travel album - the one that’s been played for the last 5 years now – and allowed all the good memories and visual associations to flicker through my mind as the mountains disappeared behind us.

The streets of Bohoyo that time forgot.
Julia and Adrian out the front of their home. 
A crane leaving its nest atop a castle turret.
Julia and Adrian’s dog looks out over the river next to the castle.

We’re not Bicycle Athletes..

  Oostende to Brugge to Antwerp (Belgium) Stage
130 km Distance
 Sunny and all day headwind Weather
 Ann from Couchsurfing Companion

After an unexpected final 25km the day before and an inspiring dinner I awoke refreshed in a bed big enough for 3 - a luxury for the usual camper. Peeping into the kitchen I found Katrien enjoying a cup of coffee. We chatted briefly before she scooted off to work and left me to breakfast alone. 

As I left the kitchen for the garage to saddle up my steed I stole a photo of Henk and Katriens 'world domination' map tucked in an alcove aside the small dining table. Flagged with yellow stickers the only continent left to mark was Antarctica - and I wouldn’t have put it past them. With a thirst for adventure and no fear of confrontation I could see these two journeying well into an early retirement. 

Prior to connecting with Henk and Katrien through Warmshowers I’d also requested to surf Ann’s couch in Brugge. She’d been out traveling herself so couldn’t host me but mentioned she was without work and with a lot of free time - would I possible enjoy a travel companion? She thought that my plan of riding to Antwerp was brave. A quick googlemaps search on her end revealed at least 6+ hours by bicycle - a distance she’d not attempted before. Having completed a survival run (it sounded kind of serious) a few days before heading into uncharted biking territory would hardly be enough to deter her. Over email we’d reassured each other that neither of us were bicycle athletes and we’d agreed to take it easy.

While I waited for Ann in our designated park meeting place I decided to breakfast on some muesli from my favourite stainless steel bowl I’d picked up long before in Myanmar. I’d improvised many meals this way - sat under a tree in the grass - while I’d contemplated being and watched life pass by. Shortly after Ann arrived on her typical Belgian bicycle (flashing a glance at Chuck I felt a little apologetic) with supremely padded saddle - after a few hundred more kilometres I’d be wishing for something a with a little more cushioning. We greeted with two kisses and continued with introductions on the road.

As we rolled along the canals surrounded by farmlands and forests conversation with Ann flowed freely. We shared the task of navigation - comparing our points to make sure we were still on track. Hours passed as we steadily battled a persistent headwind and found ourselves much hungrier than we realised. We unanimously agreed on a sunny riverside picnic spot where we refuelled with dark bread and avocado. Although we’d ridden solidly for the past 4 hours Ann’s printed map revealed that we were still only halfway.

The afternoon we rode in shared silence - focussing on pushing forward one pedal after another. Earlier in the day Ann had mentioned home made ice cream from dairy farm houses - in the warm afternoon sun we remained vigilant for signs promising road side refreshments. During the longest part of the afternoon we heard the distant beckoning song of an ice cream van although couldn’t be sure if it had just been our imaginations. 

Rolling into a town an hour out from our destination we surveyed the limited fare available for much needed sustenance if we wanted to make the final stretch. On account of ‘doing as the Romans do’ I decided on waffles from a street side stall. Sitting on a stoop beside the town church I noticed an iron collar attached to a stone pillar. It wasn’t locked and the perfect size for a small neck - so I slipped it on just to make sure my assumptions were correct. Ann offered the theory of it being used to hold village wrongdoers to shame, potentially with stones - I’d thought tomatoes but Ann was probably right.

Riding into the outskirts of Antwerp I was reminded of Melbourne - large streets, city trams, commuter bicycles, a golden light reflecting from glass buildings and people out to play for the afternoon. We’d decided on a celebratory beer before Ann took the train back to Brugge and arranged to meet my Antwerp host at the station. We’d left him waiting, hopefully not too long, as the final 10km always takes longer than anticipated.

We tailed him to a known beerspot where I learned about a hand code for ordering beers in Belgium. Standing looking thirsty apparently doesn’t do the trick - I’d decided I’ll try his method next time. As we saluted our classes an ice cream van pulled up alongside the bar. Ann and I looked at each other and laughed. I guess that ice cream would have to wait until tomorrow. 

Henk and Katrien’s world domination map 
Riding through forests alongside the canals 
Enjoying the ride with Ann 
The biking trails meandered off into farmlands from time-to-time 
Houseboats in the canals 
Ann enjoying a strawberry topped waffle 
Doing as the Romans do 
Finally arriving at the Antwerp main station 

In Brugge..

  Gent to Oostende (Belgium) Stage
71 km Distance
 Nothing Elevation
 Melbournesque Weather

So Ben walked into my room in the morning and proclaimed that I was really messy. I looked at my little backpack and panniers and the few items which were sprawled beside them and scratched my head. Had I really unpacked I think I would have given him a heart attack!

I wasn’t planning on heading to Gent but after receiving a warm and genuine invitation from Couchsurfer Ben to visit his home and understated city I decided to pass through. And I was indeed delighted to discover it through the eyes of a local and ex-tourguide. Ben lead me in and out of side alleys filled with graffiti, pointed out local landmarks and shared city legends which seemed to always feature an observant old lady.

Besides being a wonderful host and excellent city guide Ben best described himself as a writer. I followed his narrative as he recounted characters and story plots of the project he’s currently undertaking. Growing up in a ‘Sci-Fi family’ who were divided between Star Wars and Star Trek he hoped to write for a new generation an epic of space exploration and terra forming. A man driven by passion and imagination I’m sure whatever he creates will be nothing less than spectacular.

Only half an hour out of Gent on my way to Brugge I met Uwe - German bicyclist and long time traveller. He’d recently been laid off from his job after 30 years of service but he didn’t mind so much - this was evident as he told stories of all the bicycle trips he’s undertaken in the last few months. He mentioned a wife who’s only rule was ‘come home at least once every three months’ and that she’d probably also be just as likely to kick in the job and join him if the opportunity presented itself. My little legs had to push a little harder to keep up with old Uwe but it was worth the extra effort to gain a few little nuggets of wisdom and motivation for the next trip.

Arriving in Brugge 3 or so hours later the weather turned less favorable for cycling and we donned our wet weather gear. Uwe was in search of a place for a coffee and a croissant while I preferred to find a park to eat my avocado and bread. We shook hands, thanked each other for the conversation and parted ways.

After lunch and a siesta in the park the clouds parted and the sun finally showed it’s face. A perfect time to explore the UNESCO protected old city of Brugge. I recalled the scene from the movie when I saw the old clock tower and tried hard to imagine how it might have been decades ago. I found old Fidel - a placid golden labrador who lies enjoying the sun in his infamous window beside the canal. A guide in a passing tour boat slowed as he approached the window and when he pointed up to Fidel the group sighed a collective and appropriately timed, ‘Awww.’

As the afternoon pushed on I grew a little tired and decided that I would kick on to my hosts’ place 7km outside the old city. Struggling to find the house I called Henk who described surroundings which weren’t familiar and I realised that I’d written down the wrong town on my tattered hand-drawn map. In fact I was still 25km from where I needed to be and hadn’t accounted on needing energy for another hour and a half of riding. I had a momentary sink in spirits before ditching my blues and focussing on the solution; saddle up and keep on riding.

When I arrived at Henk and Katrien’s place the sun was setting and the fields surrounding were a brilliant golden-green. Henk inspected my luggage and estimated a 15kg total - 'not bad,’ he thought. I still thought it was a tad too much.

Stepping inside I was greeted with a smiling Katrien and when I came back downstairs after a long hot shower I pulled up a seat at the table set for three and a feast of home cooked spaghetti, red wine and a dessert of apple cake! Over dinner Henk ran to the other side of the room to pull out maps and photo albums from cycling trips in Tanzania, Indonesia and Australia as he recollected stories from their many overseas adventures. He apologised for the state of the house (which wasn’t anything to be sorry about in my opinion) and said that they’d probably spend more money on fixing it up if they didn’t spend it all on traveling. At this point I’d be happy to take a leaf from their book - priorities well sorted I’d say!

Graffitied alleys in Gent
Housing and symmetry in the neighbourhood of Gent
A man paints the window frame of a house in the old city of Gent
Coloured houses in Gent
Enjoying a coffee with Ben in his favourite cafe where he spends much of his time working on his novel
A lone park bench aside one of the many canals in Gent

The smallest house in Gent 

The old city of Gent
The postal service bike
A rainy arrival into Brugge

Picnicing in the park in Brugge
Alternative uses for bicycles in Brugge
A squatted house in Brugge where the residents print their own magazines and create other arty stuffs.
Looking up in the main square in Brugge.
Chuck rolls into town.
A passing tour guide smiles as he passes by.
Fidel enjoys the sun in his usual perch.
Taking a rest and Belgium hot chocolate.

Belgium, Brussels and Bicycles

  Bruussels to Gent (Belgium) Stage
71.3 km Distance
 Nothing Elevation
 Overcast and moody Weather

Last Tuesday it was my birthday and my feet had started to get a little itchy. So I dedicated a number of hours to researching potential next moves in Europe. Heading south to Morroco was looking favorable but the sweltering Spanish summer had already started to show its bite. And anyone who has spent time in Andalucia during the months of May and June will know the type of inferno I’m referring to. On reflection north was a better direction to be headed. It just so happened that a cheap flight, from a random small airport close by to where I would be visiting over the weekend, to Brussels in Belgium appeared during my investigations. In the wee hours that night I pounced on the opportunity - flight booked. 

I wanted to be in Germany anyway by the start of June and arriving by alternative means of transport is kinda my thang. So my first days in Brussels were spent searching for the not-so-perfect bicycle, upgrading my backpack with two wheels, which would get me to Bremen in the next 10 days.

My wonderful hosts in Brussles, also bicycle enthusiasts, pointed me in the right direction. I scoured flea markets, second hand bicycle stores and online platforms. I was surprised at how expensive the options were - but calculated if I could sell the bike when I got to Germany then I could absorb some of the cost. 

Finally I found Chuck. An old and heavy bright green mountain bike which looked worse than it rode. A plus for detouring would-be bicycle thieves. I had all I needed; spare inner tube, puncture repair kit, bike pump, equally weighted panniers and elastic straps to tie down my backpack. I added two 15mm spanners to my inventory in case of rear wheel deflation and late Wednesday afternoon we saddled up and hit the road.

Navigating through Belgium on a bicycle is a breeze. With the notch system planning a route between two points is as easy as selecting your departure and arrival point on the online map. Jotting down the numbered ‘notches’ and following well signed paths along the way it’s difficult to lose the way. 

I was delighted that my first planned route never crossed a main motorway, ducked in and out of farmlands on gravel paths and snaked along the beautiful tree-lined canals. After a few days of organising logistics I was glad to be finally on the road with the wind in my hair. 

My hosts from Warmshowers in Brussels - enjoying a picnic on the roof.
Homecooked pasta salad and blue cheese quiche - hospitality at its finest.
Street art and 'green spaces’ in hidden alleyways in Brussels.
The long halls of the underground music conservatory in Brussels where one of my hosts studied classical oboe performance. 
Chuck all loaded up, rocking and ready to go. 
At a canal crossing along the way - I giggled as I rang a large bell aside the dock to call the attention of the ferry lady across the way.
Navigation in the 21st century - connecting the dots.

Airport Forts and Final Thoughts..

Normally my style would be a little different; for example huddled amongst my backpack and a wall under the cover of an alternatively utilized checkered scarf. A fort constructed by imagination and innovation. Slipping into the subconscious to explore worlds ordinarily veiled by reality.

But the scenery is different this time. A tacky neon sign has lured me to play another game. In the movies it’s all first class, sophisticated suits and cocktails. Elegant hostesses, men with international business and a tab taken care of with a platinum card. The adult game of waiting for a plane. I’ve got 330INR in my pocket, which is enough to buy a beer and a seat in the cafeteriaesque bar, the only one, at the Chennai airport.

My pint of beer sits on a candy striped, paper placemat along with a plate of fried cumin treats. The menu proclaims, “Golden Chariot,” in an overly enthusiastic way. An electric blue, double barred bug zapper sits above the bar, slightly below and to the right of an analogue clock that reads 11:27pm. I take another sip of my beer and place it back down on the placemat that, by now in its soggy state, has torn at the perimeter of the condensation left by the beer vessel. Some men sitting adjacent try to get my attention, “Madam. Hello. Madam.” They’re just not direct enough so that I can ignore them and go on writing. The One Straw Revolution, place marked at “Nothing at all,” sits alongside an empty side dish on the table in front of me and Sri Aurobindo’s Thoughts on Experience defragments in my mind. It’s a kind of lonely place, with a few Indian blokes, who wouldn’t smile at me even if it were culturally appropriate to do so.

Although the obscure corner that I occupy is the perfect place to snag a few hours sleep I revert back to thinking about my outdoor bivouac. I’m uninterested in this bar-game now. Walking back out along the flyover walkway I scrutinise the characters already occupying the passage and instead decide to assess the potential at ground level.

A few families and scattered individuals have sprawled themselves on the grassy area in front of the departure gate’s double electric sliding doors. In the middle of the lawn I spy a flowering frangipani tree offering a covered alcove to pass the night. I pull out my multi-use scarf and wriggle my backpack into a space to rest my head. Although it’s not too cold, it’s humid, and in the Indian winter the temperature will drop overnight – the scarf will hopefully keep me warm and protected from the ever-present mosquito army.

It’s darkest just before the dawn and time always passes slowest in the dense hours between four and six. I sleep intermittently and if I wasn’t so comfortable I would probably search for my jacket that’s buried somewhere deep inside my backpack. When a old man parks his bicycle, a vat carrying hot milk propped precariously on the back, next to my frangipani fort I notice that the other families and folk have long departed. The man, wrapped in a traditional checkered cloth like the one in which I’ve been cocooned, entices passers-by, “Chaaaii. Coffeeee. Chaaaii.” I wobble my head appropriately and he shuffles over, shoeless, with a steaming disposable paper cup. I rest back into my not-so-secret alcove and calculate 132 minutes before check-in opens.

Earlier the day before I’d boarded the Chennai Express and remained entertained by rolling scenery and tumbling thoughts; contemplating the future of agriculture together with fragments of the last 6 months. There’s something about being in transit, the movement, which allows my mind to wander and expand. Anticipating my advancing departure and return to a previously familiar place I feel an excitement of discovering what’s around the next corner. In this mode my world is unmasked, bare and an open book ready to be written.

Thinking about it I’ll miss the street goats, hanging out at my local temple and the seemingly un-coordinated chaos. Shit, I’ll probably even miss the ants. In the meantime I’ll savour the last of this hot chai as the evening darkness finally fades.