The following is part of Marlene Adam’s (a writer from Vancouver, Canada) blog entry on one of my former blog project.
There’s something masochistic about a divorced couple voluntarily agreeing to travel indefinitely together, especially after not having seen each other for two or three years. And even more foolhardy after having already experienced the pitfalls of journeying together before.
The biggest thing Omar and I have in common is our love of travel. Not just any travel: no two-week all inclusives for us. We want the open road with unlimited time and no fixed itinerary. Indeed, we had met each other when travelling (in my opinion the best way to meet people) and, within weeks, were bicycling Costa Rica together.
“I am not a tourist,” Omar often said. “I’m a traveller. There’s a big difference.”
In 2000, after taking a goal-setting course, I resurrected a beat-up dream of travelling in Europe. Beat up because it had been stuffed down so many times, it barely had the strength to rise. Omar, by strange coincidence, got in touch after a long break in communication.
We both began a waffling process. Omar wondered whether he should stay with the lady he was currently living with or should he join me on my trip to Europe? I liked the idea of company but wasn’t so sure about it being Omar. Through the next several weeks we took turns waxing enthusiastic or being filled with doubts.
The truth was that neither of us had been able, in our time apart, to find another like-minded traveller to team up with so, unwilling to miss an opportunity, we jumped, still with misgivings but hoping the experience of making our dream come true would out shadow the inevitable relationship issues that would arise. A month after beginning our dialogue, Omar crossed the country and joined me in Vancouver.
Omar was the expert on long distance bicycle travel, having traversed every country in South America from Patagonia to Caracas. He had covered over 52,000 miles and had several notebooks filled with photos and signatures of all the people he had met along the way. They made for fascinating reading and he brought them with him. By the time we met again, he had a plan.
An avid bicyclist and spokesperson for bike as alternative transport, Omar decided to turn our bicycling trip into an ecological adventure and Ecoadventures 2001 was born.
Day 1 – May 9, 2001 – Vancouver, Canada to Dusseldorf, Germany
Soon after our quick touchdown in Calgary to pick up more travellers, I noticed people diving for the center rows of the airplane. Omar was one of the first and I watched, mystified, as one person after another commandeered the empty middle rows.
“What are you doing?” I asked Omar.
Throwing his gear on his new row, an uncommonly pleased look on his face, he didn’t bother answering.
Soon, there was only one row and two of us left standing. A man beside me waited a gentlemanly moment for me to go first, but I stood transfixed. He jumped, and it was at that moment that the light finally dawned. It was an all-night flight and people were creating beds for themselves. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I complained to Omar.
He just grinned, and I was suddenly reminded of some of the reasons we had separated in the first place. Still, I had to admit I had been unbelievably dim, so I accepted my fate and spent the night tossing and turning in a two-seater row with my legs suspended vertically up the window wall.
Dusseldorf was unbearably hot and, as soon as we cleared customs, I searched for a bathroom to change into lighter clothes. In spite of the commonly-held notion that everyone in Germany spoke English, no one I asked for directions understood my simple request. I eventually found what I needed, then headed for an ATM machine to get some local cash – at that time, the German mark. It was exciting to hold the foreign currency in my hand.
“What are you doing?” Omar asked when I showed him the cash.
“Don’t do that again. You don’t need any money.”
“What?” Omar had been telling me this since we had committed ourself to the trip but I didn’t see how he was going to pull it off.
Two months later, when my dad wanted to know how much this trip was costing me, I was able to say, truthfully, “Except for my first day, I haven’t spent 5 cents.”
While Omar took on the job of finding a way to get air in our bike tires, I guarded our massive pile of gear, strewn around the cement walkway outside the terminal building. Taxis lined up on the roadway in front of me, all Mercedes Benz and all uniformly beige. Airplanes lined the tarmac with exotic names like Turkish Airlines, Malta Air, Emirates.
Each bike weighed about 150 pounds, geared up. I had no idea if I’d be able to manage, not having actually tried riding my fully-loaded bike yet. But, to my surprise, I managed to climb on and stay upright and, two hours after we landed, we rolled away.
The countryside around Dusseldorf Airport was green, clean and inviting. We were soon on a quiet country road and that’s when it hit me: Omigod, I’m in Germany. We had been on the move for only 20 minutes when we came upon another bicyclist, outfitted like us:
Fergus Quigley, a Brit, had just come from Russia.
“This flat country is much too easy” he said. “Russia is all rocks and mountains and ruts. This is boring.” Remind me never to bike in Russia, I thought. We left Fergus behind and soon came upon a picturesque German tavern tucked among the trees.
“Let’s go in here,” I said.
“We just started travel,” Omar replied.
“But I want to celebrate. We must have a glass of German beer.” I turned down the driveway and, luckily, Omar followed.
We got a seat and, while I ordered, Omar pulled his travel notebooks out of his pannier and found the manager, returning a few minutes later.
“Look at this,” he said, showing me the brand new notebook for our Ecoadventures tour. It now contained our first entry: a business card of the pub and a signature from the manager. “We get the beer for free,” he said clinking my glass.
“But, but …”
“Marlene, I told you. We not pay for nothing. You will see.”
It was lovely getting a free drink but up until now I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. It felt a bit strange and I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with this. Still we toasted our first day of the journey and sipped the delicious brew with contentment.
Soon after arriving in the village close by, I heard a loud bang and saw Omar swerve on his bike. Flat tire.
We stood quiet for a moment, absorbing this premature stroke of bad luck. Surely we could have travelled a few days before getting mechanical trouble. As if mocking us, a light, playful rain began to fall, seeming to tease and say, I want to play, don’t you?
We were right beside a service station, which seemed a stroke of luck. But the proprietor locked his door and left, unmoved. Omar began the laborious task of removing the tire, finding the leak and using his tire kit to patch it up.
From a dry cozy little pizza deli across the street, I kept vigil, glad that, for once, it wasn’t me having the bad luck. Still, I felt sorry for Omar and, when he finally joined me, I bought him a beer and pizza with my money. So far we’d been in Germany 5 hours and had averaged one beer stop every 4 miles.
We found a clean and well-equipped hostel by the Rhine River in Dusseldorf. By now it was evening and the sun was beginning to set. The hostel wanted to charge us for a room and Omar declined, in keeping with his refusal to spend money. However, he did procure free use of the showers. Thrilled to be getting clean after a transatlantic flight and a full day of bike travel, I took happy ownership of the women’s’ washroom, only realizing when it was time to dry myself off that I had no towel. I used my panties and, with no alternative, put them back on damp, feeling quite intrepid.
After being awake for 42 hours, I didn’t feel at all tired and was happy to see where the next path led, completely unconcerned about where we were going to sleep. I was exceedingly grateful to be in Europe, in Germany, and far away from 9 to 5 and the humdrum of home.
At midnite, we had reached the outskirts of the city and were surprised to see a McDonald’s still open. It seemed so anticlimactic, but we finally shrugged and walked through the doors. Even though we weren’t in need of a taste of home, it still brought comfort.
On the road again, we found ourselves on a pretty path by the Rhine. It was a perfect place to camp and, at 2 am. we put up our tent on the grass under the trees and crawled inside the tent, immediately falling fast asleep.
The plaza in central Cologne milled with people from around the world, their many languages adding a piquant thrill to the excitement of being in front of the world class cathedral rising in gothic splendor in front of us.
The Cologne Cathedral was built over a period of 632 years, inconceivable in North America where Cracker Jack boxes could be thrown up as quickly as it takes to say ‘leaky condo’. Here in Europe, where cathedrals were a dime a dozen, every one of them exquisite, this structure, apparently, ranked with the crème. “It’s the tallest in the world,” an older gentleman had told us as we approached the city. It was reputed to be so large that 600 houses could fit inside.
I gazed at the soaring spires and felt something wonderful bubble inside me. I loved beautiful architecture. This was what my soul had been craving – spirit in humanity working to create beauty and inspiration in material form.
Omar and I found a shaded area and sat on the ground, our bikes and gear around us. There was no plan; this was simply where we had landed since leaving Wurlingen two days before. It was nice to take a break and let the atmosphere enfold us. Omar wasn’t normally a ‘taking a break’ kind of a guy so this was good.
A washroom sign about 50 feet away brought me down to earth, reminding me I was still a mere mortal. The pungent smell of urine hit me as soon as I reached the concrete walls. Why would people pee right outside a washroom?
At the bottom of the stairs I found a turnstile in front of the ladies – the rendering of a girl in dirndl clued me in. A crisp sign at the turnstile asked for a 5 deutschmark coin. I looked around. I was alone with no money on me. Indignant at the idea of asking people to pay for a necessary bodily function, I ducked under the turnstile, taking a stand for sanity.
A sound of outrage stopped me in my tracks and a door on the side banged open. A red-faced woman flew out, filling the air with vilification, thankfully in German. I showed her my empty pockets but with hand gestures and loud noises she sent me scurrying back up the stairs, beaten and chagrined. I would have liked to leave her to her solitary vigil but, nature being what it is, I eventually crept back down with the requisite coin.
Sometime later the music of a live band filled the air with perfect, crisp sound. It was R.E.M, practicing for their live concert that night in this very plaza. We had arrived on the day of their only benefit concert in Europe that year.
We abandoned any thought of leaving the city and set about finding a place to stay. Not two blocks away was a clean, new hostel. Omar discarded his rule against spending money and we quickly registered.
They had no private rooms available so we were left with a large dorm room containing six single beds lined up along the four walls.
“I’ve never stayed in a public, coed dorm before,” I told Omar. The thought of sleeping in a room with six strangers had my comfort zone quaking in denial.
“I thought you liked adventure,” Omar replied.
“Sure. Adventure’s fine but …” There might be men in some of the beds. Worse, there might be women and I’d have to deal with Omar’s tendency to unbridled voyeurism.
No one was around but us and we unloaded our gear and luxuriated in unlimited running water, toilets & showers. I had to admit that the beds looked very inviting with their fluffy down comforters and plush, immaculate pillows. It would be an adventure and I’d just have to live with it.
People began streaming past the hostel hours before the concert was due to start, cases of beer and bottles of wine in plain sight. In many cases, people were drinking openly as they sauntered down the street. To someone from Vancouver, Canada, where the police felt entitled to search for liquor in people’s backpacks at large outdoor gatherings, this seemed like a flagrant breach of command, although one I found novel and daring, possibly even civilized. (to be continue)