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.