Saturday, October 28, 2017

Xirolimni, Greece to Kavala, Greece: Keeping a Schedule

“Filippos?” said the gas station attendant.

“Yes,” I said. He smiled knowingly and pointed around the corner.

“Aristhalos,” I said. Thank you – words I find myself saying more often than usual in Greece.

Filippos is the mayor of Xirolimni. The story goes that late one night some cyclists came into that same gas station looking for a place to sleep. The attendant told them there were no hotels or hostels in town but certainly the mayor could figure something out – two cyclists couldn't be left to fend on their own in the dark! So Filippos opened the “old school” (converted into an event center) up for them. They told him about Warmshowers, and now if you bike through Greece you can stay in an old school building and the mayor will buy you a round of drinks at the local cafe.

I was very, very glad to find myself at a table with two friends – Filippos, and another cyclist from Germany, Tim – after such a long, tiring, dreary day. The boy from last night whose car I had followed partway there had redialed Filippos' number to check on me, so once we were all comfortable Filippos called him back to say I was alright. After dinner (pizza and french fries, prime cyclist food, 9 Euro), Tim and I retired to the school and talked about our bikes.

Tim, being from Germany, has all the best cycling gear, including an internal crank gear. These are rarely seen because they are so expensive, but they are wonderful for cycling. The gears stay nice and clean and the only service required is an oil change every 3,000 miles or so. He carries two spare belts just in case (they can be hard to find), but doesn't expect to ever need them.

Like me, Tim worked to save money for his tour, then quit his job. He's spending a year biking through every country in Europe. His gear has me in a bit of envy. If I one day choose to tour indefinitely, I might spring for such a setup. But as it stands, he's spend more on his bike than I have on my entire trip so far. He's had less maintenance (almost none) as a result, but I don't know if that's worth it to me. Of course, I'm not judging.

I took a dessert of the cake Evi had given me the night before, and crashed.

At 8 the next morning I opened the valve on my sleeping pad, announcing it was time to get up. Tim and I took pictures and said goodbye before heading together to the village bakery; but, they only had bread, no pastries, so I went to the town hall to use wifi. Tim showed up a few minutes later and said the baker had gotten two pastries off a delivery truck and given them to us for free. Greek hospitality, man.

I stopped by the bakery to say aristhalos and ended up using the hose to wash off my bike. It was much needed... since I couldn't see the brakes anymore. In Sofia, Bulgaria I opted for a new rack and fenders instead of a new bike with disc brakes, and this experience certainly had me wondering if I made the right choice. Time will tell...

Much of the day was spent riding on the “old highway” next to the “new highway.” Tim had told me it was all downhill, that goon... it was all uphill! Okay, not really, but it was really, really hilly. I didn't think I'd make it to Meteora until 8 PM; much to my surprise and delight, I made it in around 5:30 (okay, the last half was downhill). Tired from getting lost in the mountains the day before, this was a much needed morale boost.

Two other cyclists from Switzerland heading over a bridge just before me.

With a climb almost always comes a view...

Suspicious mountains ahead...

Welcome to Kalabaka!

Just your typical Greek hostel, connected to the neighbor.

What was not a morale boost was getting attacked by dogs. I thought I had seen the worst of it one day in Romania, but Greece has been horrible when it comes to dogs. This was the first time, though, one would bite. I was coasting down a hill and a flock of sheep appeared. Then the barking started. Three dogs came out and surrounded me just as I stopped. One approached and bit my pannier; then resumed barking at a distance of a few feet. The shepherd then called them off. More on dogs later...

I opted for hostel Tim recommended to me. It would be the most I'd spent on lodging the entire trip – $18/night. But, I wanted a good night's sleep. The owner was fantastically kind and helpful on info about the area, and the hostel was very nice, except the internet only worked in the rooms, not in the common area.

My plan was to spend the night blogging and writing postcards, get up ridiculously early the next day to see Meteora, then make it halfway to Thessaloniki, where I had a Warmshowers waiting. Turns out there was quite the crowd in the hostel that night, including guests from Canada, Spain, Germany, Scotland, Colorado, and Greece, and what should have been three hours of blogging and postcard-writing took me no less than 6. But, it was worth it. People came and went from the kitchen and so did the jokes, stories, and travel tips (like how to get to Israel without them stamping your passport, since an Israel stamp spells political trouble when entering some other countries – and apparently airfare from Ukraine to Jordan is only $37?). I made the right choice staying at that hostel – those 6 hours were worth every penny. The only thing I did wrong was having a flight to get to; I wanted to stay another day.

The next morning I got up at 6 and climbed maybe 300 meters to the top of Meteora. It was worth it.

I regretted being the “early bird” in the hostel, but someone has to be first. At the top I met Jason from Indiana, and we traded photos and shared stories for a bit. It was beautiful, but the time came to head down. I had originally planned to go out “the back --” a route though the mountains that started at the top of the climb by the monasteries – but, not wanting a repeat of two days ago, decided against it. So, back into town I went, stopping by the hostel to say bye. The owner asked me when I was going up – I had already been!

And, of course, stopping by a bakery...

That day was fairly uneventful: mostly riding the highway or service road, straight and boring. I stopped by 5 bike shops looking for a chain and only the last one had the chain I needed (an 8-speed – one shop had 7, 9, and 10, but not 8; some shops were combo bicycle-scooter shops and didn't have much in stock at all). Did I regret not taking the mountain pass? I wasn't sure...

The service road at one point passed through what looked like an abandoned mining town. One dog starting barking, then sure enough, ten more appeared and surrounded me. I dismounted and starting walking slowly, but if I took more than a few steps, they would close it. I'd take two steps, then wait. Repeat. They were all growling, bearing their teeth, the hair on the backs of their necks was up. I felt like my life was in danger. Finally, someone appeared and called them off. We talked for and bit and he called them behind a corner while I road off. The alpha tried to chase me, but I saw the man hold his arms wide and block him. One little dog did get out and chase me, but I managed to outrun it.

I'm a dog person. Or, I was. But I've never had dogs make me feel like my life was in danger before. I didn't used to understand how someone getting attacked by dogs could not love my dogs, that my family had from since I can remember up until – well, my mom still has a dog. But feeling my life was in danger has changed that, I think. I've imagined a big dog knocking me off my bike. On the ground, I'm sure, many dogs would be much more aggressive than if you were standing. I've recalled that scene from Django where the dogs tear up a black slave. At the time, I dismissed it as storytelling. Now, it seems all too real.

I will probably still get a dog one day. But I understand now... dogs can be terrifying. And I've decided I'm not opposed to using physical violence to defend myself, if that's what it takes. I hope I never have to, but sweet-talking an animal hell-bent on killing you, despite your being completely harmless, doesn't seem very effective. “Now, just stop biting me...”

The bike shop that did have the chain was in Larissa, towards the end of the day. They were incredibly kind to me, insisting on feeding me grapes (“You are hungry. Eat! They are all for you”), giving me a free energy bar, and 5% off when I also picked out a Camelbak to have extra water capacity for Africa. Someone also had a mountain bike in for service with a cassette as big as my face.

I made it out of town just as the sun was setting. It all seemed to be industry; fortunately, there were some empty fields and rotting trains. After investigating three of them, I made one my home for the night. Some clean-up was required (namely, using torn panels to cover the broken glass all over the floor) and the graffiti on one side nearly scared the crap out of me, but it was an alright place to sleep. I didn't have to pitch the tent or worry about rain.


No space here, all taken up by the V8...

My host for the evening...

The next day I was up at 6 and on the bike by 7. I had 120 miles to go to Thessa, almost twice as far as I would've liked. This would be the longest day of the tour so far. Meteora was beautiful, yes; but now, to make my flight... I had definitely overplanned.

The day had few stops; the most notable was in a small town I don't remember the name of. The baker was nice, and the guy at the park I sat in to eat my bakery goods was nice. He was just hanging out with the cab drivers who sat there while waiting for fares. It was the most relaxing part of the day. I got some disposable plastic gloves from the bakery to keep my hands clean during a chain change; my last was... I don't remember where, actually. Probably Munich, more than 2000 miles and 4000 meters of climbing ago.

This is why they call it Skopje...

Ocean spotted!

Must... resist...

Mt. Olympus, always in the background, seeming to say, "Climb me, climb me..."

I had to go around a river for which the most direct crossing was highway-only; I considered riding on the highway but there was a toll booth and I didn't think they'd let me through. I considered pleading, but if they still didn't let me through, it would be an extra 10k on top of the 20k to go around I had to do anyways. In any case, after stopping at a Lidl for a bakery-recharge, I made it to my host by 7:30.

Best selection of the trip?

Juicy bits: the best bits.

Time to play bike messenger!

Outside the apartment building, I got no response at the buzzer. I needed to call Dimitris but didn't have a SIM card. The street was quiet; in two minutes, four people walked by. The first two straight up ignored me. I was worried I was going to be left outside to fend for myself for the night. My greatest fear is living in a world where nobody helps each other; we all just stand outside our apartments asking for help and everybody ignores us... no, I don't blame those two passer-bys or think they necessarily did anything wrong. It's nobody's responsibility to help me, or maybe they just didn't speak English. It's just, life is so much better when we help each other. 30 seconds and a phone was all I needed.

The last two people were a mother and son who both spoke English. I asked them to confirm the address and we tried the buzzer (since the names were in Greek I wasn't sure I'd hit the right one); when that didn't work, she called Dimitris and he came down. I thanked her and her son profusely. Her son was ecstatic to have met someone from the US, so hopefully that was a good enough trade.

Dimitris and I have almost exactly the same sense of humor so we got along very, very well – not to mention he'd done a tour of his own just recently so we had plenty to talk about. In Greece each day is a “name day” and if it's the day of your name you celebrate – it was Dimitris day so we went out for drinks and pool with some of his friends. We originally planned to be back by 11 but at 1 we left and I asked where the “drunk slash high person food” of Thessa was; after pizza and talking we didn't get home and asleep until 2:30. He wanted to be out by 8 the next morning since he was meeting someone for a long weekend tour, so that night I got only 5 hours of sleep. It was funny though – after 80 mile days I need to crash; after that 120 mile day, staying up late was easy. The body works in mysterious ways...

After stopping by a bakery for breakfast and a coffee shop to update the blog, I went by the best bike shop in town, mostly to say “hi.” I had bothered them via e-mail about a new bike; they couldn't get the one I wanted, a Specialized AWOL, but were very nice and I wanted to see its little sister, the Sequoia.

It was really, really pretty and part of me was tempted to buy it then and there, bikepacking bags and all, but I reminded myself all the reasons it was imperfect... it wasn't an AWOL.

I ended up hanging out at the shop for two hours geeking out about bike stuff with the owner. They gave me coffee and I bought a locking handlebar bag for everything currently carried by my pants and belt, in case it gets too hot in Africa and I just want to ride in bike shorts. They gave me 10% off for being on tour. I was impressed by their knowledge and kindness... next time you're in Thessa, give them a visit. Action Bike Club.

On the way out of Thessa I found myself shaking with hunger, so on a whim I stopped by the first bakery I saw – a hole-in-the-wall that ended up being some of the best pastries I've had, and the owner was very bubbly and kind. A lucky find.

A 600m climb out of Thessa and I was on my way to Istanbul again. With the 120 mile day before I had 6 100k (about 66 miles) days ahead of me – but I was wiped. Having left Thessa at noon, starting with a climb, and being so exhausted from the past few days I only managed 50 miles. I did find a nice place to sleep, however.

The next morning – Friday – I awoke to a storm brewing. Up until arriving in Greece I'd had sun since Romania (almost two weeks straight!); the good luck had to end sometime. It was, again, a fairly uneventful day. I spent most of it on the coast, but the weather didn't endear me to swimming. It was a crosswind most of the day but towards the end of the day the road shifted to head north and it became a headwind. My speed dropped from around 13-15 mph to 6-8 mph; with some gusts I got down to 4 and sometimes got blown off the road. I was reminded fondly of that day in Indiana that ended with wonderful hosts Mark and Katz; this time, however, there was no Warmshowers at the end of the storm. Just pitching my tent in 10-15 mph winds and rain, rain, and more rain. With how tired I was from the past few days, how fast I'd been going and how little I'd slept, spirits were very low. It's one of the times I considered quitting, but I kept telling myself I'd feel better after rest.

One of the historical monuments I'd like to visit, but it's closed...

Rain for 2k? You don't say...

Much as I hate spending money, especially excessive amounts, I knew it was time for a hostel or hotel. I wanted to make it to Kavala where there would be more options, but after two hours of fighting a headwind I didn't have it in me. I picked a price in my head, went to the place with one dollar sign on my maps app, and when they matched that price I took it. I texted two cyclists I knew were in the area and offered to let them join me – that sort of thing usually never works out, but if I can share the good it'll make it that much better.

So the good news: I got a hot shower, I'll sleep well tonight, I have internet to catch up on my blog, and Friends is on the TV in the hotel room. The bad news: I'm way over budget the past few days (Camelbak, handlebar bag, hotel) and 50k behind schedule to make my flight. It's nothing I can't absorb over time – I just need to spend less the next few days and add 12k to the remaining 4 days before my flight. Let's hope there's not a headwind tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Schtip, Macedonia to Xirolimni, Greece: Hospitality, New Friends, Lost in the Mountains

Miki and I walked to his home where I had a lovely stay. I finally figured out what all those things are on top of the roofs – solar water heaters! So I took a solar shower (sorry, no picture – but they are in Greece, too, so I'm sure I'll get one eventually).

Miki's mom is a French Professor at the local university, so she came into the kitchen very Julia Childs-like and introduced herself in French. It was interesting to spend the night talking to Miki (who doesn't speak French) in English, and his mom (who doesn't speak English) in French. Of course, they spoke Macedonian to each other and to Miki's dad. To, erm, help get our eyes shut, we had Rakija, which is hard liquor made from grapes.

The next morning, after a breakfast of burek (cheese pastry) with drinking yogurt and coffee, Miki saw me off for the first 20k. It was nice to have someone to ride with, and we got to know each other a little more than we had the night before.

The rest of the day was hot and dry, but thanks to some good roads, went by quickly. Happenings included:
- Stopping on a side road to take lunch and get some shade

- Stopping at a gas station to get some shade and some water, where some very nice guys who went there just to get out of the city got to know me a bit (only one spoke English, he translated for the rest), and ended up buying me some coffee. Thanks!
- Stopping at a grocery store to stock up for a climb, and having a very nice gentleman stop to give me some route advice
- A climb.
3700m of windy road seemed oddly specific...

- A descent.

I stopped to take a photo of the descent and these guys wanted me to take their photo, too.

- Needing to kill some time... and having too much currency with a border crossing the next day... so getting dinner at a hotel restaurant. And still having too much currency.

- Sleeping by a lake.

The next day I woke up, packed my tent, and headed towards Greece. I thought I had 200 Denar (about $4) to kill, so I stopped at a convenience store and stocked up on Snickers and cookies... and discovered I actually had 400 Denar to kill. I took breakfast by the lake, then continued on to the border, passing a grocery store, wondering... should I try and spend my money there? Or should I try and exchange it in Greece?

I went by.

Then, I went back.

And I saw a crazy-looking bus with a bike inside. After getting some bread and a coffee, I noticed someone come out of the bus... someone who looked suspiciously like a touring cyclist. I went over and introduced myself.

Toby, from England, and Dries, from Bulgaria, were on separate tours but had been riding together for some time. We ended up having coffee together, and then they ended up offering to cook some extra breakfast for me. I had originally intended to be in Greece by 9 AM that day, but... new friends! So after breakfast, and talking about bikes, and traveling, and... and... scheming about how to get our mascot, Marco, across the border with us, Toby got a flat tire.

You can see Marco innocently chewing on something next to Dries.

The flat tire culprit.

So, we didn't get going until 11. But it was totally worth it. Because... new friends!
“Do they have a toilet here?”
“Yea, round the back.”
“Squat or sit?”
“I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.”
We crossed the border together – without Marco, sadly – and continued on to Greece. To find gyros.

Clearly, the right place for touring cyclists to buy gyros.

It smelled AMAZING. Like fresh vegetables and tzatziki.

Also the border guard asked me who I voted for. *ahem* After gyros, sadly, I had to depart. It had been a good few hours, shooting the shit, teasing each other, making bicycle jokes, trying to find gyros without speaking any Greek (“It's three blocks down.” “Just one block further.” “Just 100 meters more.” “Right next door!” – all this by miming, except for an English-speaking couple hired by Toby, who then passed Dries and I as we said, “Aristholos” – thank you. They were baffled to have seen one touring cyclist, let alone another, let alone another...). I hoped we would meet again – Dries would spend the winter in Turkey before doing the Pamir highway next spring, at the same time as me, and Toby considered maybe-possibly-probably-not joining Jacob and I in Africa.

I continued over a mostly flat, but not as flat as Kansas part of Greece, and wondered about the soldiers that might have marched there thousands of years ago, and all the history behind the country and things that had happened there that I would never know about. As I passed through a small town I got whistled at, turned around to say “hi,” and was invited for coffee. Only two of a group of ten or so spoke English, so there was a lot of translating going on. It was great to sit and relax a bit, and learn a bit more about Greek culture... like don't call Macedonia that, it's Skopje, and that a lot of Greeks want to go to the US so they can have full time jobs, since after the Greek economic crisis full time jobs are hard to come by. The coffee was covered.

The "Sure, I'll take your photo," Takes a Selfie. Classic.

Olympic rings.

I continued on and began looking for a place to camp, and even went so far as to ask around, getting tipped off about free camping at a nearby river. On a hill outside of town I came to think I wouldn't make it before dark, so I stopped to ask a family dining outside if they knew a place I could put my tent.

“Sure,” they said, “right here!” pointing to the ground between their fence and the street.

“Erm... maybe not so close to the road?”

So, I was directed around the side of the house. Then – “wait, wait” – I was invited in the fence, into the backyard. And shown the shower. And then, because it would be cold at night, invited into the basement. Before the end of the night, a pull-out would appear. That's how I went from sleeping next to a river, to sleeping in a yard, to a basement, to a bed.

The best part, of course, was not the bed (though that was quite nice), it was getting to know complete strangers as if we'd known each other our whole lives. Kostas and his wife Evi had friends over for dinner – friends they had made since their first-borns were born in the same room in the same hospital. We spoke about the economic crisis; why it's Skopje, not Macedonia; whether the world is a dangerous place; and the names of all the different Greek breads and pastries. I felt right at home.

Towards the end of the evening much time was spent convincing Kostas that I would be alright – he and his friend took a bet on whether I would get robbed or bit by a dog or kidnapped in Turkey, and he told me over and over about the refugees coming into Greece from Turkey and Syria. We told him to turn off the TV, yet still he persisted. I promised to contact him when I made it out of Turkey so they could settle their bet. It didn't feel fear-driven though, it felt like Kostas really cared about me. Anyways, I know he doesn't think all strangers are dangerous, because he invited one to sleep in his basement that night.

The next morning I was invited up from the basement to the kitchen for coffee, which became breakfast. Even their son wanted to feed me – he picked up a piece of bread with honey and butter, and held it out to me on a fork. I nommed.

“Practicing his Greek hospitality, eh?” I said to Kostas.

“You don't practice Greek hospitality,” was the reply. “You're born with it.”

Evi at one point cut some coffee cake and wrapped it in aluminum foil. “For the road,” she said, walking to the far side of the table and putting it in a previously innocuous looking plastic bag. “This, too,” she smiled.

I sat with my jaw open for a minute before going over and lifting the bag up and down a few times. It was quite heavy.

“You know I have to bike with this, right?” I said. They laughed.

As I was packing up my bike, they joined me in the garage and Evi handed me a plastic bag, “just in case.” It was folded like spanikopita.

I didn't want to leave – I felt right at home. I felt like I had a new family. I felt like I felt when I left Shaun and Dani's. It wouldn't be until later I'd remember all the coincidences that got me there – wanting to get to Greece by 9, then meeting Toby and Dries, then Toby having a flat tire, then stopping by that group of guys, then asking around town for a place to camp... somehow when I went by their house, they were out in the yard, not inside. Thanks, world, for introducing me to them.

I wish I could feel like I felt that night, forever. Fill my life with awesome people, and spend all day with them. This is the high I chase, better than drugs, better than sunlight, vegan diets, fantastic views, or $1,000,000. Just to be with people – even people you just met – and to feel loved, like you belong, like you're safe. I think that's the best gift we can give each other.

That's why I cycle tour.

So that's where the word cornucopia comes from...

The morning was fairly uneventful, except that it rained. I had a climb to do that day between Kostas' house and my Warmshowers, and I could do a 1200m climb on a highway, or a 1600m climb on a side road. Obviously, I took the side road.

Climb in the distance.

10% grade? No problem. I did 12 in the Pyrenees all the time.


And up...

Up and up I went, and people honked and waved and one guy stared so dumbfoudedly at me out his window he dropped his cigarette to wave back at me when I waved and smiled. I stopped at a small town at 1300m for food, and continued to the top just as the rain picked up along with the wind. Only at 1400m, with the only ways up or back down, did the road change to gravel. Nasty, chunky, unpacked gravel.

And up...

“Crap,” I said.

But maybe it was just like that to the top. Anyways, I couldn't go back down. So I went on.

The weather was pretty miserable, but it did stop raining at some point. I also reached what I thought was the top, but there was no sign – there was nothing but trees and a crappy gravel road.

And this guy, who I named George.

I kept going.

I kept going until the “road” split, and then I checked my map, and realized I wasn't on the road anymore. I had gone about 5k away from it at some point, and the “road” had become grass and dirt and mud and cow manure, so not only was I in the middle of nowhere at 1600m in a mountain in Greece, but my bike and I were dirty.

I shouted a profanity.

Louisa, for all she's worth, made the best of the slip-and-slide that was the wet, muddy path over the mountain. I almost fell multiple times, almost, quite literally, eating sh*t.

I wouldn't get to the bottom of the mountain until 6:30, and I had told my host I would be there between 5 and 6. There were some kids playing in the street in the village; hoping for a phone, I asked if any of them spoke English. They didn't – they went inside and got their family. The whole family. Mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, sons, daughters – all came out on the street and began talking to me and each other in Greek. I was reminded vaguely of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I tried to mime that I needed a phone. The grandma tried to talk to me in German (most useful language for cycle touring Europe?).

After 5 hours of climbing and being lost, the other side of the mountain was a very welcome sight.

Eventually one of the sons called a friend who spoke English and the family left. Through some handing the phone back and forth and Google translating it was determined I would follow him in his car halfway to the next major city, 10k away, and from there get directions to Xirolimni, where my host was, still 20k more.

The sun had set, so I put lights on my bike, and off we went. It was, fortunately, mostly downhill. After a few turns and many long coasting sessions, we made it to an intersection where a few cars were waiting. He had invited his English-speaking friend, so we had a little hubbub at the intersection in the dark in the middle of rural Greece, and directions were given, and repeated, and repeated again, and was I sure I could make it? It was very far. They really cared about me.

That's the thing about Greece. I first noticed it in Skopje – people were just friendlier. Smiling, waving, friendly honking. In Greece, it's one step further: they smile, wave, friendly honk... invite you in, give you directions, ask if you need anything, ask again, and then worry about you for hours after you've left. You're taken care of.

I made it another 5k before stopping at a gas station to check my map again. It was now 8 PM, pitch black, raining, there was lightning on the horizon, and I still had 25k to go – 2 hours at worst. There was a pickup truck parked by the gas station.

“Do you speak English?” I asked the clerk. He did. I asked who owned the pickup. He pointed. I explained my situation – I had gotten lost in the mountain, there was a storm approaching, and I was trying to make it to Xirolimni, 2 hours away. I would be very appreciative of a ride.

“Come in,” he said.

I came in and sat down on a couch. Car parts and lubricants were in shelves on the walls. The lighting was dim, and on the other side of the room sat two men silently smoking cigarettes. I felt vaguely like I was being recruited into the mafia. I knew they just didn't want me waiting outside in the rain, but I didn't want to interrupt their smoking session.

“America?” one of the men said. I nodded.

Eventually they snuffed their cigarettes and waved me out to the pickup. We loaded the bike, I got in the very small back seat (remember, pickup), they got in front of me, and we were off.

Had I not been so tired it probably would have been a bit more creepy. The thunderstorm in the background, rain pounding on the windshield, me turning around to make sure the bike was still there, them talking in Greek, the occasional question in English...

“There?” he pointed. I had been following on my phone and yes, that was the city in the distance. He would have been willing to take me to the front door, it seemed, but I insisted on the gas station outside of town – mostly because it had a roof, and I didn't want my new friends to get wet. We unloaded the bike, shook hands, and they were off. I never got their names.

And that's how I found myself alone at a gas station in a thunderstorm outside a small village in Greece.