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...

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