An Attitude of Gratitude

The relative leisure of my Turkish detour, and the hospitable café hangouts with endless glasses of tea, have given me the opportunity to work on my correspondence. While family and friends have received frequent e-mails, it has been a challenge to reply to all the mail from folks I’ve met along the way. In the past few days I’ve made some headway, often with the help of Google Translate, sending thanks and photos to those who have made my road easier.

The process has inspired this post, a general thanks to everyone, with a call-out to those who went beyond hospitality and courtesy to provide real support and friendship. It would be a cold, lonely and less meaningful journey without you, and I promise to spread the love as far and wide as my limited abilities allow.

You will notice that as we go back in time the photos are fewer. I lost some in a software glitch, but mostly I was reluctant to hold up a camera in people’s faces. I’ve overcome that reluctance now, and I truly regret having no photos of some people. If you are mentioned below with no photo, please consider sending me one. Thanks. Dank u wel. Merci. Gracias. Moltes Gràcies. Grazi. Hvala. хвала. Mulţumesc. дякую. Teşekkür.

In something like reverse chronological order:

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Erol guided me to lodging, interpreted, shared dinner, tea and conversation, for no other reason than because he saw my need. Kandira,Turkey.

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Atilla saved my ass! Why did he go to the trouble? He’s a good person with a big heart. Istanbul.

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Omer and his boss didn’t have to befriend me, shelter me from rain, watch my bike, feed me good food and free tea. They wanted to. Istanbul.

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Yunos offered inside info on ferries, and extended an invitation to visit, without a word of common language between us. He also helped to break the ice with the truckers on the Black Sea ferry.

Daniel So shared so much! A true gentleman. It is my crime that I have no photo of him. I will correct that oversight when I visit him in his Hong Kong home.

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Igor Tudoran and Tanya. With little privacy to begin with, they took me in, fed me, and really went out of their way to help me in Odessa. Igor spent an entire afternoon helping me with visa errands (while he should have been studying), but more than that, he shared his hopes and aspirations, fears and frustrations, like an old friend. Igor is a major inspiration for this post. He’s the next Steve Jobs. Tanya is simply as sweet as honey.

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Andrey Ivchenko is the man most likely to show up on my doorstep some day. And I will be hard pressed to repay the kindness he showed me in Odessa. He was just a long-haired dude on a skateboard; now he’s a friend for life.

Florentina asked ME for help, with a soft tire on her bike. My pump didn’t speak Romanian, but she and Andrei befriended me, put me up, and introduced me to the coolest people in Constanta. We still e-mail frequently, delightfully.

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Luci & Vali, Cazinesta, Romania. Before I met this family I passed hundreds of little farms wondering what life was like for the families there. If these folks are typical, life is rich and good and happy. It’s hard to convey just how much we shared in our sixteen-hour relationship. Just look at the love on those faces!

Livru, Mihaela & Lucien. I soiled Lucien’s car seat with my bike chain; no problem. I screwed up his work schedule; no problem. I got drunk and told coarse jokes in Mihaela’s kitchen; no problem. I am convinced that I met the finest, funniest and most interesting folks in all of Bucharest.

The Guys, somewhere in Serbia. No nonsense, just good food, abundant beer, and a bed to sleep in. Hello, welcome. Goodbye, good luck. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of hospitality.

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These guys, Mladen (with the white stripes) and his twin brother Marko, changed my scoring of Serbia from C-minus to A-plus. If they didn’t have such a good Dad already, I’d adopt them.

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Ervin & Arnela Kulašić. The lunch was great, but the least of their gifts. They opened my eyes, in one hour. I promise to keep them open, and never forget.

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Nedeljko. Thirty kilometers of climbing makes for close ties. You are looking at a very real, sensitive, thoughtful man. Croatia.

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Peter dragged me off of a dusty Croatian street and brought me home. I’m sure glad he did. A sincere, happy, humble and dedicated family man; we need more like him.

Matea (AKA Alex), Gordana and Josip sent me off with homemade bread and booze, after a home-like stay in Croatia. I’ll never forget how natural and comfortable it felt to get up early and sit in our pajamas on one big couch, with the whole family, while the fire crackled in the stove. No photo, my bad. Alex, send me one!

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These two, Simon and his dad Stane, dropped everything for two days to show me Slovenia’s beauty, history and cuisine. Ill never forget my hike/history tour with Stane. I miss them still.

Ailene in Venice rocked my world. Rocked it so much I came away without a photo. Don’t need one; I’ll never forget.

Another crime: no photo of Peter van der Straaten. Like a son, you drove me nuts for four days; now I miss you all the time! Really, send me a photo.

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Chris, an unforgettable character. Kind, sensitive, generous, real. Thanks for sharing. I wanna be like you when I grow up.

Claudio, near Bologna, Italy, gave me a tent site on his farm, and in the morning honored me by letting me help with chores. Then he thrilled me by bringing me into the kitchen, playing his violin, and giving me a bottle from his wine cellar. Much more, he told me his wonderful story.

Jordi in Girondella, Catalonia, Spain. The best, the most, the standard to which all others must be compared! That goes for the boys, too. If I return anywhere, it’s Girondella.

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Francis and Irene. I devoted an entire post to my stay in Saint Jean de Luz, and my gratitude still flows. See you in December!

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Lydie Giraud. The picture tells it all. I’ll never forget sitting on the couch, drinking wine, listening to jazz and…checking our e-mail!

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Catherine Rabier. Ever feel right at home the minute you step into someone’s house? Visit Catherine and you will. Generous spirit.

Lionel & Sophie encouraged me to stay three days. Without their special brand of hospitality and caring help, I might have missed Paris altogether. And what super kids! An inspiration.

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Jean Claude Lecompte. Former world’s luckiest man, until I awarded myself that distinction. We shared our love of jazz and grand bicycle adventures until past midnight. Way past.

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Carine and Aniel, living consciously and traveling widely, have developed big hearts and a knack for hospitality. They had good food and good advice for this would-be world traveler.

Francis Tabouret, Lille, France. Google Zingaro: that’s him. He deserves special mention; he cycled 25 kilometers with me, in the snow! I am very happy that we keep in touch.

Christel & Michiel. Elegant home, fine dining & wine, and genuine, down-home sharing and friendship. My Facebook friend. I wish I had half Michiel’s smarts and a wife like Christel.

Time & Tim, Ghent. I’m still using gifts and advice I received from these two world travelers and young lovers of life. Natural born hosts, funny and smart.

Marc and Christie, Wuustwezel, Belgium. I arrived at a difficult family moment, their first Warm Showers guest at that, wet and cold and full of needs. Their gracious welcome and hospitality was a godsend. Marc, remember that cold, pre-dawn 20 k ride to Antwerp? Crazy!

Simon Commercial. Now here’s a friend for life. He insisted I stay three days, encouraged me to start a blog, and shared his life story in the most heartfelt way. Thanks to his frank sharing and gift for communication, I KNOW this guy like I know few others. I am honored to be Simon’s pal, and I promise to live up to the honor.

Martin & Lucie, London. Long before you invited me to stay, I knew you would! You’re a cool family, with cool friends, and I really enjoyed the morning ride, an adventure and a pleasure. But your damn e-mail address is a dud! Send me a note, and give Lucie a kiss for me. Two kisses!

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Imelda & David, Staines, England. I have mostly forgotten the pain of the accident. Never will I forget being a part of this incredible family for three days. A Few weeks ago Imelda e-mailed me and said little Orlah still asks, “Is Billy is going to make it to King Kong OK?” I almost cried. I love you guys.

Simon in Basingstoke. Still sorting out my bike fit, I stayed with Simon, one of the few I have met who knows more about bike fit than I do. And a fine, generous host as well.

Fay & Kate. My first hosts. Their first Warm Showers guest. You set the bar pretty high, girls, for future hosts! I should have listened to you and stayed another night. But Hong Kong seemed so far away! Thanks for keeping in touch. I think about you often.

Steve Thomas scooped me up off the road and cared for me when, on my second day out, I bit off more than I could chew and choked on it. What a fine gentleman, what a fine family.

Finally and firstly, Steve, David and Josh at SJS Cycles sent me off on my first wobbly kilometers with professionalism, warmth and British wit. And they still look out for me with support and advice.

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Turkey

The weather is here. Wish you were beautiful.
—Henny Youngman

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Warning! This post is huge. I’ve got time on my hands.

Sometimes it’s easy to find a place for the night, sometimes hard. As the sun sinks and evening comes, I evaluate my prospects with increasing scrutiny. Rule of thumb: when in doubt, press on. Down the road may prove to be less doubtful. It has worked so far, unless I count the time in France I nearly froze before finding shelter at ten PM, three hours after sunset.

So, as I left Istanbul one late afternoon and headed east, I wasn’t too concerned that the map showed fifteen miles of dense urban streets before the suburbs and eventual countryside. Surely I would either reach camping territory or find lodging.

When I took shelter from a rain shower in a gas station, I still had two hours of daylight left. The gas jockeys had a comfy employee lounge, with a kitchen, tea samovar, bathroom, and a little room with rugs for prayer time. The shower turned into the biggest storm Istanbul has had in a decade: hail piled up in the gutters and, as I found out later, there was flooding downtown; cars submerged, streets washed out and food stalls floating. By the time the rain stopped it was dark. The boys offered to let me stay there, and I should have accepted. But I had found cheap accommodations the night before, and they told me that there were hotels in the direction I was headed. I was still in Istanbul proper but, traffic notwithstanding, I don’t mind riding at night with an effective lighting system.
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Ahmed says,”No problem!”

I found the hotels, $200 a night Hiltons and such. I’d rather ride all night, I said to myself, and pressed on. Navigation was difficult, progress was slow. I spent some time under awnings and bridges as the rain came and went. The neighborhoods changed character, and soon my surroundings resembled the bombed-out projects in the worst sections of the Bronx. Streets were confusing, potholed and poorly lit. By now it was midnight. A bunch of young toughs tried to flag me down; the next bunch tried to block my way. One grabbed a handful of my shirt, and I almost went down. Whatever they had in mind, it definitely wasn’t friendly. I must admit to feeling some anxiety on the next few uphills.

A half-hour later the slums gave way to the outskirts—industry, car dealerships, strip malls and truck stops. At a gas station I was advised that the next hotels were twenty miles away, and another storm was coming in from the sea.

When in doubt, push on. At 1:00AM I saw a guy standing outside a sporting goods store—hunting, fishing, canoes and such. No English, but I made sign language for sleeping, tent. It started to rain. He got it, and motioned me to follow him. He led me to a big, steel-framed canvas storage tent, unlocked a padlock and lifted a flap. It was full of retail detritus: racks, mannequins, old life vests and paddles, boxes of disorganized junk. My bike just fit in. He shrugged and tied the flap.

I found an old camp cot and dusted it off, chuckling at my good fortune as I got into my sleeping bag and listened to the rain on the roof. I was exhausted and hungry, but warm and dry and thankful.

Then, just as the storm was starting to pick up, I heard a shout outside the tent. There was Atilla, my host, with an elegant tray of food on china dishes, great spicy soup, stuffed grape leaves, French bread, cake, yoghurt, and a glass of water. I thanked him in amazement. He just closed his eyes, put his hand on his heart, bowed his head and left. After my ordeal, exhausted as I was, it was overwhelming. I got all choked up.

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Atilla and I had tea next morning.

The storm shook that tent but I stayed dry. I woke to bright sunshine, steam rising from the wet streets, and the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. I didn’t go. Next door was a gas station where I cleaned up. When I emerged from the bathroom the gas attendant, Mustafa, held out a glass of hot tea on a saucer, with two sugar cubes and a little spoon. “Hello!” he said, “Where you from?” They turned out to be his only English phrases.

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Mustafa and crew

In the days since, the generosity and hospitality showed by Atilla and Mustafa has proved to be the norm in Turkey. I stayed in a couple of small beach resort towns, where the accommodations (including a generous breakfast) were so inexpensive I couldn’t be bothered camping. Waiters, clerks and strangers behaved as if my satisfaction was their highest priority. Between towns were mountains with short but steep passes, and surprisingly green forests, farmland and apricot orchards. Food joints at the top of mountain passes offered grilled meat, corn on the cob, hot tea and cold beer.

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Chai?

Kandira, away from the coast, was a farming and trading center with extensive markets but no tourism and just one pricey downtown hotel. I asked a cabbie, “Otel?” (Some Turkish is easy.) He pointed toward the downtown hotel but I made sign language for “too expensive”. He understood, bid me to wait, and fetched two men with cell phones. They made calls while the cabbie made gestures of reassurance and a young man kept repeating, “No problem, no problem.”

Soon, judging from their expressions, the solution emerged, although it couldn’t be communicated to me. A teenager was dispatched to guide me to an address. On a side street a set of stairs led to a second-story balcony with a few men sitting outside drinking tea (they do that a lot here).

Luckily, a man named Erol had some English. He explained that it was a “Pensionne”. I first ran into these in Belgium. They are dormitory-and-cafeteria style accommodations for out-of-town workers, usually rented by the week and often paid for by employers. This one is run by a school district and intended for teachers. Some retired bachelor teachers, including Erol, live there permanently. It appeared to be run by middle-aged Moslem women. With Erol’s help they fixed me up with a five-bed dorm room, all to myself, with wi-fi and breakfast, for about $9.00. Erol brought me to dinner at a bohemian place, an apartment where the rooms were furnished as lounges and food came from the tiny kitchen with no menu; you got whatever was ready next from the teenaged waitress. We were served, in a hot pan, something like a pizza with everything, but without the crust. A basket of good bread was provided, with which we scooped the hot, spicy, cheesey stuff; it was quite delicious. Young people, Erol’s former students, popped in a couple of times for a warm, two-kiss greeting and a short visit. After a smoke on the back porch with the young owner, we were halfway down the stairs before we remembered to go back up and pay.

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Erol, Ismail, Turan

After breakfast with Erol and his policeman friend Ismail, it was another day’s ride from the next beach resort town. At lunch beneath a roadside oak tree a farmer took a break from his work, walked straight over to me and shook hands. Then he sat down three feet away and quietly joined me, as natural as can be. Although he refused bread and cheese and cookies, his face lit up at the strawberries and he had a few. Through sign language we learned a bit about each other’s lives.

You can say a lot with sign language. It’s important to speak in your own language as you do it, to convey meaning with tone of voice. Nodding or shaking the head are universal. Pointer fingers held together parallel; married? If the answer is single, a pointer finger indicates “one” as the thumb points to the chest. Divorce is like married, then quickly point in two different directions. Hold your hand at various heights, palm down, say “Children?” and you will be understood. Make the gesture nearer to the ground for grandchildren. (At this point, with gentlemen, the phones come out with photos of the grandchildren. But not with simple farmers, peasants or Gypsies.) Numbers are easy, and with a few gestures I am often asked my age. Make a shoveling or hammering motion, then rub the tips of the fingers together for the familiar “money” gesture, and that means, “What is your job?”

Which reminds me. For most of my life when asked my profession I have struggled for an answer. Not content with my livelihood for long, and changing careers so many times, I would often respond with an awkward list or a joke or a half-truth like writer or musician. This year I have started responding, “Christmas trees!” I wasn’t always proud of it, wishing for a more dignified profession. But in recent years I have come to understand that I enjoy it, I am good at it, and there’s nothing undignified about it; it’s honest work. I have become proud of it after all. And I receive a positive reaction from everyone, even in Moslem Turkey, where it takes some explaining.

Also, after finding that I’m an American, many people ask where in America I am from. I’m very proud to be a Vermonter, but answering, “Vermont” just gets puzzled looks in most places. Answering, “New York City” gets an instant reaction, oohs and aahs. And since I’ve lived there for two years over the last twenty-four years (a month at a time), and I love New York and my friends there so much, that’s my short answer. Much more than a half-truth.

But where was I? Between Kandira and the next beach town, Karasu. The hilly farmlands with orchards, hayfields, and patches of woods; the villages, tractor traffic, old cemeteries, streams and roadside springs; and most of all the hilltop vistas with tall pointed minarets marking the village mosques, all reminded me of my beloved New England’s green hills and church steeples. At times on these hilltops I could hear the call to prayer from several village mosques; first one starts, then another, then a third. Many times, bicycling Vermont’s back roads at midday, I have been treated to a similar symphony, of church bells tolling the noon hour.

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In the late afternoon a shady farm road beckoned me, and I followed it through a patch of woods to an apricot orchard. A sunny meadow and a cool breeze lulled me into lingering. Karasu, with beach hotels and restaurants and tea houses, was only a few downhill miles away. But I stayed, playing mandolin until sunset, and pitched my tent. I enjoyed a fine dinner (if I may compliment my own cooking) and read yesterday’s New York Times on my phone.

Distant thunder. Wind. I added four stakes and guy lines to the tent and got back inside just in time. What a downpour! The storm passed right over my camp, with lightning and thunder so close it scared me. Wind shook the walls of the tent, and the rain was so hard that when I put my palm on the wall, it felt like I was slapping five with an angry Thor. My gear and I stayed dry, though, even through a couple of encores. It rained on and off through the night. In the morning, sunny skies. By nine the tent was dry and packed, and I was on the road.

My morning cleanup at a gas station was again followed by complimentary tea from the attendants. Are there friendlier people anywhere on earth? In the villages, men gathered at shaded tables to drink tea don’t just wave, they wave me in, serve me tea and cookies, and ask for a mandolin tune (all sign language except for “Hey-low!” and “Where you from?” and “No problem!”). Farmers, construction crews, schoolchildren—they all stop, shout greetings, and wave their hats until I’m out of sight. More than half of the cars, and all of trucks and busses, toot friendly toots, wave, shout, and give thumbs up. Fruit vendors, after my strawberries are weighed and paid for, slip a few more into the bag, and maybe an apricot or two, with a smile and a twinkle. A Turkish lira, $.54, buys a pound of fresh strawberries, and I’m never far from a roadside stand.
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Even at this Internet cafe, a teenage boy greeted me with, “Hallo! Where you from?” Within a few seconds, friendship established, he brought me a tea.

I carry a pack of cigarettes with me, Marlboros or Lucky Strikes, and some hard candies, in my handlebar bag. The Gypsies always shout when I go by their camps, and I like to stop for a minute. They crowd around me, men, women and children. Here in Turkey they really are camps, tents and tarps and very few permanent structures, none by western standards. I don’t have to offer: the kids come up with their hands out, and within a few minutes after shaking hands, the men make smoking-cigarette sign language.

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I want to understand these people, but it’s hard. Their habit of remaining dirty, even filthy, when often there is a hose or a river nearby, and their open dishonesty (an oxymoron?) and shamelessness, puzzle and fascinate me. Grown men will reach into my handlebar bag to grab something, then smile sheepishly when I slap their hand away. As I leave, they say in English, “Wait! Stop! Money! Give me money!” not in desperation but with smiles, as if to say, “Come on, man, I’m your pal!”

I often see a teen or two who is clearly different from the rest, with clean clothes and a more civilized demeanor, always hanging back but staring intently, as if trying to communicate. I wonder, will they escape their siblings’ fate? Do they suffer for their “rebellion”? Are they ashamed of their living conditions, their families, their kinsmen?

As elsewhere, the local people despise the Gypsies, although I see them putting coins in their cups as they go from table to table at cafés, wordlessly begging. Only the women beg this way, often with a baby in her arms or a toddler in tow, and an imploring, desperate face. Gypsy kids from five to ten find places to beg, performing services like returning your cart in supermarket parking lots, or lifting the lid on trash cans for you. One tiny girl in Istanbul would press the signal button for pedestrians at a crosswalk with an upturned palm and a heartbreaking smile. In cities the Gypsy women and teens do their recycling, waiting as merchants empty boxes, then breaking them down and piling them high on hand carts. I never see the men outside the camps, where they disassemble appliances, autos and computers for recycling, and squat on their haunches under shade in groups.

You can count on another post from Turkey, since I have another week here. I feel very relaxed and contented here, but at the same time eager to make progress toward my goals.

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This two-week detour to Turkey is somewhat like a “vacation” from my expedition. I’m resting up for the challenges ahead. Soon I’ll have my Russian passport. Then I’ll be slogging across flat, agricultural European Russia, crossing the Ural mountains, and pushing eastward for two months through Siberian forests. Happily, my knee pain has mostly disappeared in the last week, sunburn is under control, and my mind is at ease. I miss my friends and offspring, and the English language, but not much else. From my position as the luckiest man in the world, I can only hope, sincerely, that you all slay all your dragons and enjoy the victory. Peace and love.

Detour to Istanbul

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The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.
—Isak Dinesen

It took an entire day to get on board my ship, starting in an office in Odessa then another office, where I met Daniel, a cool fellow my age who is traveling from his home in Hong Kong to London, through Siberia, by train, with a folding bike that he uses in cities. We were the only regular passengers on the Sea Partner, a huge cargo ship and truck ferry that was our home for three days.

After a wild taxi ride to the port, we finally found our dock, a shipping terminal where the closest thing to information was a little sign language from a longshoreman. Finally a bored young fellow with five words of English motioned us to follow him. Then, over the course of several hours, three different kinds of security and customs officers checked us out and asked me to open the mandolin case. Three times I complied, then played a couple of bars of “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, which cracked everybody up every time. They recognized the melody! Customs man got the biggest laugh, though, when he turned to Daniel’s bike case and said, “Piano-forte?”

Eventually we got to the last official, a tall, good-looking, heavily armed blonde lady in camo fatigues who cranked up a 25-year old computer and, after much delay and ceremony, stamped our passports, giving us permission to leave Ukraine.

In-between we were left in the sun on the crumbling concrete pier, dodging forklifts and trucks. No cameras allowed.

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The Sea Partner

We finally boarded and found our cabins, and watched as a dozen trucks drove onto the lowest deck (there were nine decks aft and six fore decks). The drivers came up to the lounge, and I never saw a tougher-looking bunch of characters; Turks and Russians from thirty to sixty with tattoos and scars, wild hair and mustaches, gold teeth here and there, knives on their belts and evil eyes for me and Daniel. They took tables, set up games of dominoes and backgammon, and opened bottles of vodka. Hi, fellas!

The ship got under way just after sunset. A harbor pilot boarded from his little vessel to guide us out to sea, then hopped back off to return home when the ship captain took over.

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The Cute Little Pilot Boat, 30 Feet Long

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Aaaahhhh

For three days we crossed the Black Sea, with calm seas, nice weather and other ships always in sight. Daniel and I took our meals together and got to know each other. A government administrator a few months from retirement, with two grown daughters, he has lived his whole life in Hong Kong. This was his first adventure. He speaks perfect English and we plan to meet again in Hong Kong.

As I expected, the truckers turned out to be a bunch of sweethearts. I broke the ice with some fractured Turkish and Russian. Soon they were sharing their candy and taking photos of each other wearing my hat. Vlad confessed to speaking a little English, and Yunos invited me to stay with him in Turkey. Translating Turkish to Russian, then to English, we got each other’s stories. Good men, hard workers. One was bound for Iraq, another for Tajikistan.

On advice from Yunos, Daniel and I arose at 5:00AM to witness our entry into the Dardanelles, the historic straight that separates Europe from Asia. Here the Silk Road from China, the Spice Road from India, and the sea route linking the Danube River (and many other rivers) with the Mediterranean Sea and the world, all cross. It was beautiful, with green hills topped by elaborate Mosques, ruins of Ottoman forts and castles, waterside mansions with huge yachts docked in front, and porpoises jumping alongside the ship. The waterway was busy with ships and boats of all sizes and descriptions; as we approached Istanbul it became a crazy scene thick with ferries and fishing craft, launches and yachts, huge tankers and container ships, sailboats and speedboats. Absolutely mad.

We docked. Daniel and I said goodbye to the truckers and crewmen, and we were handed over to Ahmed, a driver and “agent” (of what we never learned). He held our passports, which we had given up upon boarding, over my ineffective objections. Ahmed was handsome, nattily dressed, and can-do. We stuffed my bike and Daniel’s, all our luggage and us into a little sedan, and went on a wild ride through Istanbul (including a ferry ride and a bridge from Asia to Europe). We wound up at a gigantic customs building, where Ahmed arranged to have my passport disappear into a maze of offices and come out later with a Turkish visa. The entire bill, taxi and all, was $20. Ahmed bowed and left. Daniel and I said goodbye and I once again found myself alone and on my bicycle in a strange city.

Istanbul is mad, crazy, insane, wonderful, dangerous, delicious, huge. Everybody is buzzed on the strong tea they serve in little glasses. Men from the tea shops run all over downtown with steel trays with glasses of tea, keeping the taxi drivers, store clerks, cops, bank tellers, and construction workers, everybody, slurping tea with sugar. They collect empty glasses on the way back without breaking stride.

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Tea? Best in town!

Starbucks and McDonalds are deserted; the tea shops are full. They all have men smoking hookahs and playing dominoes and backgammon, noisy with the tiles slapping. The best bread since France, and the rest of the food is outstanding.

The traffic is beyond description. Aggressive (but not angry) drivers, lawless (but skilled) driving; it is dense with every kind of vehicle, plus throngs of pedestrians, pushcarts, vendors, double/triple/quadruple parking, loading and unloading, Gypsy cardboard carts, beggars, hawkers, hookers, cops and robbers. I had to go ten miles through this shit to find FedEx. The street kept changing from Times Square to the Cross Bronx Expressway (with pedestrians) to Canal Street to an alleyway to a bombed-out, long-forgotten construction zone and back again. I didn’t see a single other bicyclist, and I nearly got killed a dozen times.

There are miles and miles of street shops selling absolutely everything, stall after stall, carts, storefronts, kiosks, stands, guys carrying trays on shoulder straps. You could build a ship or furnish a skyscraper or supply a movie set, any movie, with the stuff I saw. Neighborhoods are devoted to sewing machines, tools, restaurant supplies, power equipment, fruit, phones, auto parts, office stuff, you name it. I found a store that sells goose down (five grades), duck down (four), and chicken feathers. A good part of downtown caters to the maritime trade, with separate shops devoted to rope and cable, brass fittings, pumps, bearings, boots and gloves, books and charts, radar and sonar, GPS, sattelite phones (I want one), anchors and chains, everything.

I got my visa stuff mailed and wound up in a hostel in a tourist area near the biggest, most historic mosques and ruins. It’s big, maybe fifty blocks of hotels, hostels, restaurants, shops, bars, tea houses, and art, antique and carpet dealers. These Turks! Waiters stand outside waving menus and greeting everyone (the streets are packed with tourists). “Hello! Welcome to Istanbul! Table ready! Best in town! You like beer? Wine? Meat? Tea? Pastry? Here’s my card! Please come back! Best in town!” Every shoemaker and trinket seller has a smile and a sales pitch, bowing and gesturing toward his goods. There is good healthy food for sale from street carts: corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts, watermelon slices, all kinds of nuts and fruit, orange juice fresh-squeezed while you wait. Tea and coffee from big brass wood-fired samovars. Dried fish and delicious olives.

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I spent a morning cleaning my bike at the hostel, then rode all over town looking and eating. I can’t say ALL over, because this city is huge, five million people. But I got into ten different kinds if neighborhoods, mazes of cobblestone streets older than Jesus, hearing the call to prayer coming from mosques, back where the people live, far from tourist land, where no English is spoken. I’m exhausted.

Tomorrow I’ll load up the bike, do more of the same, then head out into the countryside in the evening, go camping. I’ve got two weeks to ramble before returning to Istanbul to pick up my visa and passport. Then it’s back to Ukraine to resume my eastward route into Russia. I’ll try to post once or twice in the meantime. Please send me an e-mail. It’s lonely out here sometimes.

Odessa Revisited

Here I am back in Odessa. It happened this way…

After sending my Russian visa application and passport to Washington, DC, I left Odessa somewhat sadly and slowly. The skateboard boys staged a going-away party the night before, a big one, a late one. I spent four days riding through flat agricultural land and sandy pine forests, camping in nice places and enjoying some smooth roads for a change. Towns and small cities were busy because of a Russian holiday, and I made pleasant noontime stops each day to check e-mail and have a beer or a snack at an outdoor cafe. The weather was very fine, sunny and hot in the daytime with cool nights.

Just after I entered Crimea I got an e-mail from my friends in Odessa informing me that my mail had bounced back. It is illegal in Ukraine to mail passports, and I got caught. That is, we got caught, because I had used Andrey’s address in the “from” section on the shipping form. I took an overnight train back to Odessa, got us off the hook without too much trouble, and found myself back where I was a week earlier, without a Russian visa. The American Embassy in Kiev was no help, suggesting that I fly to Washington with the passport myself, and hinting that they had more important issues to deal with.

After an evening of head scratching and Internet research I was still stumped. Russian visas are only issued in the passport holder’s country. Even if I sneaked my passport through the Ukrainian mail, there was no assurance that I could get it back again. And the clock was ticking: after my Western European delays, some hard pushing through Eastern Europe had put me within reach of my originally planned June 1 entry into Russia. Now I was losing days. For a while I considered skipping Russia altogether and changing the plan to Turkey (which I always wanted to visit anyway), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But I was discouraged from that after reading about the complicated visa application processes for four of those six countries.

I considered returning to Romania, where my friends Florentina and Andrei in Constanta would surely help. But as close as it is, a couple of hundred miles, the connections by rail, bus, taxi and ferry (including walking a few kilometers through Moldova, which has no rail, bus, or taxi connections in that area) are ridiculously complicated, expensive and slow.

In the morning I came up with a plan. I will travel by boat across the Black Sea to Istanbul, Turkey, where I can mail my passport and visa application to Washington, go cycling through the countryside for a couple of weeks while waiting for the visa and passport to return, then steam back to Odessa to resume my eastward path toward Russia. I’ll get to see some of Turkey, and the boat ride will be fun. It is early in the season for the cruise ships and luxury ferries, and they are expensive. But I found a cargo vessel that takes passengers in the few crew bunks that were freed up when technology reduced the number of crewmen needed on board. The ticket is cheap, no frills; I will bunk and eat with the crew. It will stop in Bulgaria for a day, so I can visit there. The whole process, including the time I have lost already in Odessa, will put me about ten days behind my June 1 target for Russia. I’m sure I can make it up on the 2500 kilometers of flat farmland between Odessa and the foothills of the Ural Mountains.

Waiting for my boat, I spent the day at the beach with Andrey and two new friends, Sergey and Volya (sorry about the spelling, boys).

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The semi-crowded city beach has clean sand, clean water, small waves and busy ship traffic on the horizon. The people-watching was unforgettable. Sorry fellas, I didnt bring my camera, but here’s one Sergey took.

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In the meantime, here are some random notes from my recent ride down to the Crimea.

Like the western part of Ukraine, there is a big contrast between the countryside with its peasant culture and small, underdeveloped, decaying villages, and the bigger towns and cities, where the centers are busy with modern shops and streets busy with well-dressed shoppers. Here the road surfaces are better, and the highways more often go through the cities instead of around them. I saw some huge modern factories that were freshly painted and clean-looking, with mowed lawns and cheerful signage, nothing like the dystopian industrial landscape I saw in other parts of Eastern Europe.

In addition to roadside vegetable stands I frequently saw old men or women sitting by the roadside with an upturned bucket or cardboard box with just a few eggs or scallions or apples for sale, desperate looking figures who don’t look up when I pass.

When I camp, washing up in the morning is limited to a quick face splash with a water bottle. I always stop at the first opportunity for a more thorough job, usually at a gas station. Some are disgusting, some are nice, but if there is running water, even just cold, I can wash, shave, rinse clothing, and feel good. The people are almost always nice, and I always buy something if it’s available, water or soda or peanuts.

One gas station I stopped at last week, at a crossroads far from town, was over-the-top nice. Spotless chrome, glass and tile inside and out. Four attractive women in uniform (black skirt and shoes, white shirts, perky hats like airline stewardesses used to wear) were cleaning, stocking shelves and pumping gas. The single male employee was cleaning tire marks off of white-painted curbs. The bathrooms were as you would expect in a fine restaurant, with three shining sinks and a mirrored wall. Espresso and pastries were available. At a small counter were four upholstered bar stools and three of these…

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…for charging your phone, and a sign inviting you to use the free wi-fi. As I was leaving, the staff was lined up for inspection by a stern female manager in the same uniform, but with stripes on the epaulets.

I have a lot more observations I’d like to share, but it’s time to catch my boat. I expect that I’ll have plenty of time in the next few days for more blogging. Thanks for visiting!

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Strange Days Indeed

I have re-written this post a half-dozen times as my stay in Odessa has grown to more than a week, my longest layover by far. I planned to persuade the Russian Consul here to grant me a Russian visa. The four-day International Worker’s holiday was the first delay. Then, over the course of three long days spent riding busses, waiting in lines and waiting rooms, and filling out form after form, I got to meet with the man who says, “Nyet.” I admit it now: Russian bureaucracy is stronger than my resolve. So I am employing an American visa specialist to obtain the visa for me. This involves sending my passport to Washington, DC, for ten days. It is risky to be here without it, (every hotel needs to see it, and any cop can demand to see it), and not exactly legal to mail it overseas. In fact, FedEx refused to accept it on a Saturday, adding two more days to my Odessa Odyssey. The good part is that it is a vibrant, fascinating city full of nice folks.

I arrived during the May Day holiday, when the center is particularly busy in the parks, shops and restaurants. Along with the usual food, flower and souvineer vendors, there are musicians, pony rides, and jugglers. In what seems to me a stroke of genius, they rent little electric cars for the kids, with radio remote controls for the parents. The kid has fun, and dad gets to play with a new toy. You can also pose for a picture with a giant snake, lizards, falcons, peacocks and various mammals.

I stop to chat with Slavi every afternoon. He does portraits on the street, a trade he has pursued in twenty different cities around the world. Good stories and information, that guy. The waitresses in Wuko, my favorite tavern, have little English and greet me like family, guiding me to my favorite table and bringing my Corona with no glass (and giggling at it).

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Potemkin Stairs

It is very fine in and around the center, the Potemkin Stairs, with many busy parks, fountains and sidewalk cafes, a beautiful opera house, rows of beautiful buildings and several world-class hotels. The atmosphere is relaxed: traffic is slow-moving and quiet, shopkeepers sit outside and smoke, couples stroll the streets, and parents with children are everywhere taking their time. In the parks young and old men play chess, backgammon and dominoes. The outskirts are dusty, chaotic and crowded, with noisy bazaar markets spilling into the potholed streets, dense traffic ignoring the rules, and antique, overloaded trolley cars rumbling along on a treacherous snake-pit of tracks.

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The Opera House

Closer to the water is the port, huge, industrial but clean and hard-working. A large hotel there caters to those ship captains, traders and businessmen who visit Odessa without ever leaving the waterfront. To the north and south are the beaches, most topless, many nude. The unusually warm and sunny weather has brought about a marvelous surplus of sunburn.

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Andrey Ivchenko. Photo my Not Me

I attracted to the noise and action of skateboarders in one park. They had more skill than I see in most places. I quickly befriended Andrey, Alex and Stanislaus. They enjoy some status in his town; a skateboard video displaying their skills and passion has made them admired heroes to the young skateboard crowd. When we walk around downtown kids stop frequently to greet and bump fists.

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Andrey

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Stanislaus

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Alex

I am fascinated by the extremes of rich and poor living in close contact and what seems like harmony. The rich are like any big city’s upper class, shopping and dining in the fancy establishments, parking their Porsches, and having a hell of a time all dressed up and fingering their phones.

The poor are making an impressively good show on tiny incomes. The apartment building where I’m staying holds three times as many as a similar sized building stateside. A a toilet and a cold water only sink in a hallway serves half a dozen people as their only plumbing. Couples make a home in a single tiny room, and four men share one slightly bigger room, with a toilet far away upstairs. It’s grimy and falling apart, with junk piles and plaster suggesting generations of dense habitation and neglect. Yet every morning well-dressed, stylish people emerge and go to work in retail, restaurants, banks. My friend Andrey, for instance, works in an art gallery; most of his pay goes to his rent, and he eats little in order to keep clothes on his back and his phone and electricity paid. Yet I don’t see a poverty mentality. That’s just how it is; walking around with a only few cents in your pocket most of the time and dealing with it, counting your thirty-five cent bus rides because you only earn a dollar or two an hour.

So far on this trip it as been easy to get local cash with my debit card at an ATM. It stopped working in Ukraine, for purchases as well, and I used up my small stash of Euros and Dollars. With the four-day holiday, stuck in Odessa waiting for the Russian Consulate and the banks to open, I completely exhausted my cash. Andrey and his friends kept me (the rich guy) fed, and I’m sleeping at Andrey’s tiny downtown apartment, accessible only through a crazy maze of hallways, other people’s kitchens, dark stairways and long passageways full of stuff. It was fairly easy, and fun, to get enough for a beer by playing music on the street.

I finally got the bank card working with the help of the good people at Vermont Federal Credit Union. In the meantime it was a complete change of pace for me, waiting instead of pedaling, watching the hours rather than the kilometers go by. One day I sat in a park watching people for so long I had to change benches twice to stay in the shade. The little skateboard dudes stop to bump fists with me. In fact, when I visit Primorskaya Park the skateboarders glide over to see me and there is a great big round of handshaking, slapping five, bumping fists and (for the girls) cheek kissing. I try skating every day and I’m learning to jump, if not land upright.

As an example of the relaxed atmosphere here, the people enjoying the park seem to enjoy the skateboarders as well. My pals swerve closely through the strollers and children without any disturbance, behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated for a minute in New York. They are friendly with the police. In one incident the boys told me about, a stray skateboard bumped (but did not injure) the shoes of a distinguished looking older man on a bench, prompting an exchange of insults. He called the police, who politely told the boys to be more careful, and politely told the gentleman to go sit somewhere else. They’ve got a little advocacy group going, and the get a huge amount of tacit, and almost no official, acknowledgment from the strong-mayor city government.

With my my bike up at Andrey’s I’m on foot for a change, which is good, one notch closer to the people. I’ve walked miles and liked what I saw, mostly.

Here they have trolleys and big old busses, and unregulated taxis, all pretty cheap. But most people use the “little bus.” These are Mercedes Sprinter or Isuzu vans, a little smaller than a UPS truck, outfitted as a small city bus. They are privately owned but licensed by the city, which assigns routes and provides bus stops and signs. The drivers are often the owner, or the owner’s family. Like a NYC taxi, they are prized moneymakers. The driver decorates with curtains and such, provides music, talks on his phone and lets his friends ride shotgun. A carpeted engine cover to his right is strewn with bills and coins; you make your own change, paying 2.50 grivnas as you exit, about $.36. They get crowded and overloaded (bumping bodies is OK but eye contact is rare), and when a rider exits the rear door, he hands his fare to his neighbor; then it passes from hand to hand to the front. Sometimes two or four people make change together so they can hand a five or ten up through the crowd. I never saw anyone exit without paying. Another thing: no man or teenage girl sits while a woman stands. This courtesy is performed completely without eye contact or acknowledgment. Late at night they park near the clubs and wait until all of the seats are full, then go roaring off, a rolling bar scene with no bar.

I am eager to get back on the bike, but I’m waiting for Monday to ship my visa application. It’s easy to stay; I have a place to sleep, bike security, friends young and old, and eating doesn’t cost much. In fact, I’m busy making my rounds, sticking my head into Ludmilla’s barber shop to say hi, checking on the chess games in the park, dropping coins in my favorite beggars’ cups, and getting ice cream from beautiful Elena. I can’t walk very far downtown without bumping into an acquaintance. A few don’t know why I’m dressed so funny, they just know I’m Billy. Some have agendas involving a few grivnas.

On Saturday night I visited some clubs, large dance venues packed full, one with a great bar band. I wound up in an extra-crazy gay bar (strictly on a tourist visa), with a good bunch, drinking and dancing to excess, and experienced that old familiar shock from my youth: stepping out from the decadent smoke-filled light-show nightlife noise into the bright Sunday morning sunshine, birds chirping in the trees.

In a couple of days I’ll head down to the autonomous region called the Crimea, a mountainous peninsula said to be different from the rest of Ukraine. There the native Tartars were forced to relocate by the USSR before WW II, replaced by Russians populations from the north. Many Tartars returned after 1989, and live uneasily among the Russians. There are few ethnic Ukrainians. The Crimea is resource poor and underdeveloped except for seaside tourism. The hills are known for their wild feuding hillbillies. Can’t wait to meet those guys.

Then I plan to visit Luhans’k, near the Russian border. A widely-believed legend from ancient times tells of an empress of Ukraine who was insecure about her beauty, so she exiled all the beautiful Ukrainian women and girls to far-off Luhans’k. Today their descendants give the city it’s reputation for tall, beautiful Ukrainian women. Gotta check that out.

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