Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Another Friend in the Home Stretch

I’ve been able to drop in on friends on all of my recent tours--Craig and Onni, Florence and Rachid and Yvon in France last summer, Joel, Bill, Peter, Chris, Elwood and Robyn, Michael and Susan, Dwight and Susan, and Jeff on my fall ride back from Telluride, Bruce and Sounkalo in Mali this past winter, and Rick, Jeff and Kirk on my just completed spring ride.  I marvel at my good fortune of having such a vast array of such fine friends.  And then in my home stretch I heard from another friend who happened to have flown in from Florida on a writing assignment. He was staying in Lansing, Illinois, just across the border from Indiana, which I would be passing through. He was doing a story for the Campus Crusade website on someone who had started a program helping the homeless in Chicago Heights 25 years ago. 

It was about 25 years ago that I met Mike and his wife Michele at the Telluride Film Festival, where we were all volunteers.  They are among the many exceptional people who are drawn to the festival who I enjoy seeing year after year.  They’ve missed the last few years, too busy with work, so it was wonderful to be able to catch up with him.  He was staying at a hotel right on my route making our rendezvous seem as if it was preordained.

It is always inspiring to learn what Mike is doing.  When he was living in Colorado Springs, his church work extended to counseling military personnel at the large base there.  After he moved to Florida he now counsels the incarcerated along with his journalism that has taken him all the way to Africa. His gentle demeanor is a solace to all.  It was another reminder that meeting friends while traveling makes as much of an impact on me as any sight I might see.

Besides the time with friends, this trip will be remembered for its extreme weather--the coldest April in the Midwest since 1881.  The first three days offered close to normal temperatures for this time of year, but the final four days of this 526-mile ride were in conditions that would discourage any sensible person from taking a bike ride, split between two days of riding in sleet and rain with the temperature hovering around freezing, followed by two days of riding in snow flurries into a strong headwind. The flurries were a welcome relief from the rain, but the effort of riding into the wind had me debating which were the worst conditions--the cold rain with a tailwind or being dry but having to exert myself so strenuously.  If it had been ten degrees warmer in the rain, that would have been my preference, but being wet in the low 30s was dabbling with hypothermia. Still, I ended each day filled with the glow of any good ride, even night six when I camped in sub-freezing temperatures after sleeping in doors the previous three nights, two at the homes of friends.

It gave me a chance to test my new sleeping bag, which is rated to 30 degrees.  I stayed warm, but I needed to keep on my tights and sweater.  I was almost happy that the bag wasn’t overly warm, as it will be my sleeping bag this summer in France, where the nights will be cool, but rarely less than 50.  I was also testing a new tent, an updated version of REI’s Passage Two that has been my choice for over fifteen years.  The zippers give out after three or four years of close to 150 nights a year.  Each version has slight improvements that take some adjusting to and that I’m not sure I like, though I eventually do.  

This one has new hooks for attaching the tent to the poles that are more secure but require more effort to attach.  It also has different pockets in the ceiling that prevent me from so easily dangling items to dry.  The doors are more round, putting less stress on the zippers, my biggest concern.  Knowing all the testing that REI would put into any changes, I have to trust that all are for the better.  My cycling shoes also gave out in Africa.  Their replacement seemed perfectly fine and then even more so when my headlamp shined on them on the corner of the tent and I discovered that the shoelaces are speckled with reflective material as well as the backside of the shoes.  They nearly sparkled.

So my gear is all ready for my ride from Paris to Cannes next week and so are my legs.  I began this ride with a hundred mile day and ended it with a century, though the last few miles were a ride to the post office to send off my tax returns after I’d had dinner with Janina.  It felt great to be riding well after dark.  My legs didn’t want to quit.

My final two days included four more Carnegies, making it fifteen for the trip, twelve in Michigan and three in Indiana, bringing my grand total to 526 of the still standing 1,364 in the US.  Two of them had been grossly disfigured by additions to their front sides to make them handicap-accessible.  They didn’t merely put in ramps or a side entrance as most Carnegies have done, but slapped on large edifices utterly obliterating the majesty of the original building. The Dowagiac, Michigan Carnegie had become laughably surreal with a tunnel leading up to the former entrance, an unforgivable abomination.

The large addition to the front accommodated a row of computers, the periodical room and the checkout desk.  The upstairs of the original library was now the children’s room, the library’s saving grace, while the lower level, a windowless dungeon, had tables and shelves of books for adults.

The Westville, Indiana Carnegie’s frontal addition didn’t so severely obliterate its majesty, as one could look at it from the side and somewhat appreciate it, but it was still an architectural blunder, a wart on a princess.

The Carnegies in Goshen and LaPorte more than made up for the blunders of Dowagiac and Westville.  Goshen’s Carnegie was the first built in Indiana in 1903. It was designed as if it would be a marvel for every one in the state, worthy of a pilgrimage, then and now, rather than the first of 167, more than any other state.  It now serves as the city hall, but is still cared for like a precious jewel.  The dome in its rotunda is inscribed with the favored writers of the time--Goethe, Homer, Hugo, Milton,  Virgil, Irving, Emerson and Dante.  It’s significance is acknowledged with a two-sided plaque giving its history and honoring Carnegie in the lawn out front, just as at the LaPorte Carnegie fifty miles to the west.

LaPorte’s was one of the last built in Indiana in 1920.  It has a large addition to the back, but remains a library.  I arrived right at nine when it opened, except I didn’t realize this part of Indiana was on Central time, so it was eight a.m.  I didn’t have time to spare as I had eighty miles more to ride.  I couldn’t linger outside even though it was a sunny day, as a nearby bank sign gave a temperature of 28 degrees.  Westville was twelve miles further, but the small town library didn’t open until three this day, so I was shutout of my last two Carnegies. The strong wind from the west of the day before gradually shifted from the north and then by mid-afternoon miraculously all the way around from the east pushing me along and allowing me to arrive home before dark.

The forty degree temperature seemed almost balmy, the warmest it had been in four days.  France will seem downright tropical, as Paris is already enjoying 70 degree temperature.  Not only will the sun’s warmth be welcome, so will the warmth of the people, who embrace a touring cyclist as some one on an adventure or perhaps a pilgrimage, unlike the perception in the US of someone who is destitute and is reduced to traveling by bicycle.  As I sat against the wall of a service station eating a peanut butter sandwich early in the trip, a young man with a baseball hat turned backwards, who pulled up in a black pickup truck, came over to me and said, "I have a spare two dollars on me I’d like you to have.  Bless you."  I’ve learned not to refuse such offerings, as it hurts the giver’s feelings.  I accept it and find someone to pass it on to--this time to my friend in Mali who is trying to raise $5,000 to send over a container of goods.  He is more than half way there.  His most worthy organization is called Drums for Solar.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Dowagiac, Michigan

I awoke on Friday the thirteenth in Hell, a tiny town on Hell Creek amongst a cluster of small lakes forty miles south of Lansing. There were no town signs, perhaps because they were too often pilfered.  The town had a campground, but I chose to wildcamp, as a sign at the campground said, “Casual attire required.”  I was concerned my biking outfit might not qualify as “casual.” 

I had descended to Hell at the recommendation of my friend Rick in Lansing after visiting the Carnegie in Howell fifteen miles to the north. It was in the opposite direction I was headed, but I had time to spare before meeting up with Rick the next day in Dansville for a ride to his home.  He said the camping would be much easier around Hell than I had found it the night before in this thickly settled region of people willing to commute long distances to their places of servitude.

Hell was not only notable for its tavern and casual campground, but also for a restaurant that claimed to have “the best home cooking on earth.”  I was eager to see if it’s hotcakes transcended all others, but unfortunately it wasn’t open.  If Howell played the bragging game, it could justifiably gloat over its Carnegie—a true gem in the upper echelon of Carnegies, constructed of local stone and crowned with a mini-dome.  The extended addition behind was well hidden preserving its dignity.

The town had enhanced its frontside with a stand alone clock tower and well-maintained landscaping.  It’s foyer under the dome was majestorial as well, with notable light fixtures and hand woven rugs and comfy chairs along with a Carnegie portrait in a corner.  This was a full-fledged shrine/temple.  Sitting in its grandeur couldn’t help but inspire one to lofty thoughts.

A special display promoting the library’s genealogical services further honored Carnegie.

The next day after my time in Hell, I arrived at the Dansville library, a former bank, at noon, two hours before Rick was due.  My route had taken me through other small towns with personality. The Community Church in Gregory had an oversized Little Free Library.   The local barber (Hairworks) advertised, “Let us tame your mane.” 

The small Dansville library didn’t open until three.  It was warm enough to sit in the sun and eat and read and take advantage of the WiFi zone outside the library entrance rather than retreating to the town cafe.  I considered heading towards Lansing to meet Rick, but I wasn’t certain of his route.  Good thing I hadn't, as he came via a different way than I had anticipated. He arrived right at two clad in tights and windbreaker.  I was wearing tights, but had hoped it would warm up as it had the day before allowing me to ride bare legged for the first time since Africa.  But a severe storm that would plunge the temperatures and bring a cold rain was on its way.  It was already clouding up and growing cooler, enough so that I had to put on a vest shortly after we started.

Rick was astride his Seven, a bike he races on and also tours with having to use a special rack as it does not have eyelets to attach the standard rack.  He’s the rare cycling fanatic who only has one bike.  He’s been riding this since 2002.  Some time this year it will register 100,000 miles.  Rick has less than 5,000 miles to go and has a pool among his friends trying to guess when it will happen.   Though Rick lived in the Chicago area in the ‘70s and was one of the preeminent racers in the Midwest at the time with Olympic aspirations, we didn’t get to know each other until I started blogging and a mutual friend of ours suggested he read it.

And the person who set up my blog happened to be a friend of Rick’s as well, Jeff of the most worthwhile website outyourbackdoor, who also edits Bicycle Quarterly.  He lived in Lansing as well and would be joining us for dinner along with another ardent cyclist who tours and races and follows this blog. Rick briefed me of our evening to come as we pedaled along mostly side-by-side on the lightly traveled rural roads that he knew like the back of his hand.  We were so absorbed in conversation he didn’t always alert me that we would be turning.  He’d apologize saying, “I keep forgetting you can’t read my mind.”  We are kindred spirits enough that it wasn’t a far-fetched notion.

We were able to ride on a bike path for a spell through East Lansing, almost in honor of Rick having designed the first rails to trails route in Michigan over thirty years ago as part of his job as an urban planner.  His house reflected his bike fanaticism with a wide array of bicycle art, some dangling from his light fixture over the dining room table and a bike as an end table and many mini-bikes here and there.  Our last few miles were in a misty rain.  We were relieved not to have been soaked as the ever darkening sky looked like it could unleash a Biblical  torrent at any moment.  Before I showered though I had to pay my respects to the local Carnegie Library three miles away in the shadow of the domed State Capitol Building.  I shed my bike of its load, put my pump and spare tubes in my backpack and defied the impending storm, which considerately held off, allowing me to complete my mission.

Though it was a large two-story building, Lansing’s population increase had long ago required the construction of a larger library.  The Carnegie had been appropriated by the neighboring Lansing Community College in 1964.  A plaque in front of its blocked off entrance read, “Its simple style featured a classical facade that suggested a return to the enlightened days of antiquity.”  The only entry now was through the attached glassy college building.  It looked a little forlorn in the gloomy weather, but still radiated an air of quiet dignity.

I made it back to Rick’s before the rain hit.  While I was showering, Rick’s “squeeze,” Jeannie, and Jeff arrived and shortly after Layne.  Jeff and Layne were foregoing the weekly Friday night ride of local cyclists.  The nasty weather helped them make their decision.  The conversation was most lively as we dined on heaping plates of spaghetti.  Big news was a local 58-year old cyclist they all knew being handed a four-year ban for refusing to give a urine sample after finishing second in a high-profile race.  They had all been impressed by his placing and credited it to his recent retirement, allowing him to train more. All of us with our racing experience and acumen know doping  is an inescapable aspect of the sport, enough so that we hardly hold it against Armstrong.  As many readers of this blog, they wanted to know Janina’s reaction to all the fabric I brought back from Africa for her.  She loved it.  It’s presently stacked on her piano.  Anyone who visits marvels at it as well.  Janina has many plans for it.

It was lucky I’d had a long mid-day break and just a sixty-mile day, as our conversation continued until after midnight.  We thought others in the cycling community might drop by but the wintry spring storm curtailed all.  The big question was whether I’d be able to ride the next day or the day after, as two days of cold rain were predicted.  A prolonged rain isn’t usually too hard and usually has lapses that allows one to dry out a bit, so I had hopes of being able to ride, though Rick was encouraging me to hang out.

When I awoke the next morning the rain was just a light drizzle.  It was 37 degrees with a forecast of the temperature dipping rather than rising during the day.  My friend Kirk awaited me in Battle Creek 54 miles away.  I headed out at eight, knowing that within fifteen minutes I’d know if it were too cold or wet to continue.  I was immediately happy to be out pedaling.  I had six layers on my torso, including a down vest, but just tights on my legs.  The cold wasn’t penetrating and the wet wasn’t gathering.  I could endure this at least to Charlotte (pronounced Char-lot as in “used car lot”), where a Carnegie and motels awaited me.  A northeast wind hurried me along, but kept me from exerting myself to create extra warmth.  Fortunately I didn’t need it yet.

The Carnegie was more of a slightly embellished home than a public building.  It sat on a corner of Charlotte’s main street with no room for expansion, so it was no longer a library, but rather the quarters for an accountant and a florist.

I warmed up at the nearby McDonald’s before continuing on to Battle Creek 32 miles further.  A bank gave a temperature of 33 degrees and it felt it.  The forecast didn’t call for it to fall any further, so I didn’t need to worry about ice. At least the rain was slackening.  I had three pairs of gloves.  I switched to my wool gloves.  The ones I had started with were damp despite plastic bags covering them.  My feet were damp as well, water penetrating my booties through the holes in their bottoms to accommodate my cleats.  I felt chilled but not cold.  I rode steady warding off the cold and arrived at Kirk’s by three after taking another break at a McDonald’s for food and warmth.

Even if arriving at Kirk’s hadn’t meant surviving the inclement weather, I would have celebrated seeing my friend of many years when he managed the theaters at Facets a mile from where I had lived in Chicago for a couple of decades.  His love of cinema was undiminished.  We talked cinema as fervently as the conversation had been cycling the day before.  He fully keeps up with the movie world driving to Kalamazoo, Lansing and Ann Arbor, all within an hour, for films that don’t show up in Lansing.  He had recently driven to Ann Arbor for the latest Sally Potter film, “The Party,” which had just been at Facets, a wickedly funny delight Janina and I had greatly enjoyed. He had held off on “The Panther” though and me too.  With nothing more enticing we made that our Saturday night film at the nearby cinema where Kirk began his projectionist career in 1976.  The stand-alone theater out near the airport had expanded from its original two screens when it was built in 1970 to seven and had upgraded to deluxe seats and designated seating in all its theaters.  The local competition kept tickets at five dollars for matinees and seven dollars for features. 

Neither Kirk nor I care much for the generally mind-numbing superhero movies and this one, despite all its acclaim and box office craze catapulting it to the third highest grossing film of all time already, didn’t win us over.  As Kirk said, “I could have lived my entire life without seeing this movie.”  We won’t be enticed by the many sequels to come.  We have seen countless movies together, memorable and forgettable, so we didn’t regret this outing in the least.

Unlike the day before, I awoke to a rain coming down too hard to dare riding in.  The forecast was for it to wane by two.  By one it had dissipated to a slight sleet.  The trees were covered with ice, but the road surface retained enough heat for it to remain ice free.  I had loaded up my bike hours earlier awaiting the chance to hit the road.  Once again I set out with the knowledge that I’d know within a couple of miles if it was within my tolerance to keep riding.  With the precipitation more ice than rain, it didn’t wet my tights, so I was in business. I had the options of motels in Kalamazoo, twenty-two miles away, or in Paw Paw, where a Carnegie awaited me, twenty miles further, or before Dowagiac, another twenty-six miles.  Halfway to Kalamazoo the sleet stopped and I started warming up enough to pull the zipper down on my jacket a couple of inches.  I took refuge in another McDonald’s in Kalamazoo for a McChicken and some warmth. By the time I resumed riding the road was dry.  Riding the bike was once again a joy and not a grim test of fortitude. Not only was it “Paw Paw here I come,” but Dowagiac as well.  Life was not only good, it was wonderful. 

The standard red brick Carnegie in Paw Paw has been the Carnegie Community Center since 1995.  It had been well-maintained and was as welcoming and inviting as an old friend.

Three chain motels just south of Paw Paw along the interstate beckoned, but there was nearly two hours of daylight remaining.  With no rain to contend with for the first time in two days I couldn’t not keep riding.  I knew there was a cheap independent motel north of Dowagiac.  The lone review of the Peck Motel said, “This is the dirtiest, nastest (sic), unlivable place I have ever been.  I wouldn’t even allow my dog to sleep here little (sic) alone a human being.”  This I wanted to check out.  I arrived at 7:45, fifteen minutes before dark.  It was a typical small town motel. There were only three cars parked and a Vacancy sign.  There was Christian literature in the entry. A sign saying no smoking in the rooms meant I wouldn’t have to ask for a non-smoking room.  The owner was Caucasian, not Indian.  He said he didn’t accept credit cards.  When I asked about a senior discount, he said I could have a room for forty, rather than the posted fifty dollar rate.  He kindly led me to a perfectly fine room and put down a matt for my bike.  He turned on the heater and the tv.  Whoever had written the scathing review clearly had a personal grievance and not to be believed.  It provided a fine finish to Another Great Day on the Bike, sixty-four miles.  Knowing how intimidating the weather had been, Rick had emailed mid-afternoon—“So how far did you get before the weather won??? I am not betting against you; I am just saying you are human.... and without submarine.” As I have learned over the years, one shouldn’t let the weather be a deterrence.  It has to relent at some point.  Rarely do I regret persevering.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Detroit’s Six Still Standing Carnegies 

Detroit is a city of demolished and boarded-up buildings (though not as severely as I feared), so it is no surprise that three of the nine libraries Carnegie funded in Detroit have been leveled and one of the six remaining is boarded-up.  The boarded-up library may have been the most distinguished of the lot, other than the grand main library.

Like the other four still standing branch libraries, it was constructed of red brick and was free of the pillars and domes and other flourishes that highlight many of the Carnegies.  They all had large windows and high ceilings and, those that I could get into, fine woodwork within, and exuded that Carnegie aura of majesty.  For several their most distinctive feature was a sculpture outside or some art within.

The first I came to, the Bowen branch, after biking sixty miles up from Toledo, the nearest city I could get to via Amtrak, as the Detroit line didn’t accommodate bicycles, had a fragment of a Diego Rivera mural with the tiny figure of Rockefeller at the bottom.  The now Hispanic neighborhood had a surge of population shortly after it was built, necessitating an expansion ten years later, the only one it has experienced.  It could use new bathrooms, as the men’s room in the basement was a tiny cell without a sink.  When I told the librarian I was visiting the Carnegies of Detroit, she was more enthusiastic about a handful of libraries built in the 1930s that I ought to visit, a couple with cork floors and one built in the Tudor style.  Detroit has the fourth largest public library system in the US with twenty-one branches, but I only had time for the Carnegies. 

The Conely Branch three miles away had had no addition.  It sat in a large park. There was a sculpture off to the side of two teens perched on a tree stump, both with a book.

The Duffield branch, four miles further, was marked by a railing interweaved with a sculpture of tree limbs.  It too had not been added on to, though it had been renovated ten years ago.  The walls had been left blank with no art or portraits of presidents or significant locals or even Read posters.

The Utley branch two miles away on Woodward, the main east-West avenue through Detroit, was now a childhood care center with a handicapped accessible entrance to its rear and a playground on one side.

I followed  Woodward toward the city center to its main library across the street from the Detroit Institute of Art, which featured an exhibit on the costumes of Star Wars.  Students of nearby Wayne State University strolled by.  The Italian Renaissance style library  constructed of Vermont marble was designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the US Supreme Court.

I continued east on Woodward past the Tigers stadium trying to stay clear of the tracks of the light rail system. It was quite perilous in front of each stop, a platform that slightly jutted out making the gap between the track and the side of the road quite narrow.  With my panniers sticking out, it was even more dangerous.  I turned north off Woodward to the boarded-up Ginsberg branch, which wasn’t so easy to find as it was on a small side street that only ran in haphazard segments with a haphazard numbering system.  When I finally found it I had to pass through a break in a high fence that surrounded the property, as the two buildings on it were boarded up.  

As I was photographing it a security guard appeared, shouting, “What are you doing?”  He had never seen a loaded touring bike and feared I was a transient looking for a squat.  But he turned out to the friendliest guy I had encountered since leaving Chicago.  He was enthralled by how far one can range on a bicycle, and we had a pleasant conversation on the bad rap Detroit has taken, as it is much more vital and alive than perceived.

He was just the antidote I needed, as I had had a run-in with one testy person after another, beginning with the Amtrak clerk I had dealt with in Chicago revising a ticket I had bought for Janina to St. Louis.  She wasn’t happy about having to do it and complained about all the effort it took.  Then as I lined up to board the train to Toledo a young man who was among a crowd who had prematurely lined up ahead of seniors and people with children and was blocking the entry threw quite a fit when my bike brushed him.  Our different skin pigmentation might have had something to do with it. The woman he was with had to calm him.  I’d earlier had an unpleasant encounter with a fellow touring cyclist, a guy my age traveling with his wife, who went on and on about non-camping tandeming excursions they’d had in New Zealand and France, renting a bike upon arrival and trying to stick to bike paths.  He asked if I’d done much touring.  I told him a bit, and that I’d just returned from two months in Africa.  That didn’t stop his soliloquy, not even my slight interjections indicating I too had toured in New Zealand and France.

The  majority of librarians I encountered were also somewhat narrow-minded, wary of engaging me in any manner when I expressed interest in their Carnegie heritage. What is happening to human decency?  There was an unmistakable lack of respect for Carnegie.  Not one of the six Carnegies I visited, including the Main Library, acknowledged Carnegie in any way—not with a plaque or his portrait or his name anywhere on the library.  The strong labor interests in the city evidently suppressed any homage to the steel tycoon.  One of the branch librarians even told me that the city had refused his grant for the Main Library.  I told her Wikipedia still referred to it as a Carnegie-funded library.  She called over to the library to find out and was surprised to learn that Carnegie had indeed contributed to its funding.  The librarian wasn’t alone in being misinformed.  Another branch librarian told me the same thing when I told her the Main Library was next on my itinerary.  The two librarians I spoke to there acknowledged Carnegie’s contribution, but unlike most small town librarians did not light up with pride that theirs was a Carnegie.  

It wasn’t until the Carnegie in Mount Clemens, twenty miles north of Detroit, that Carnegie pride resurfaced with a large plaque out front celebrating his contribution to this library and hundreds of others all across the country, although it got the number wrong.  It was 1679, not 1681.

The library was now an Art Center, but there was no mistaking its former life as a Carnegie Library.

A gentle breeze from the south had not only brought almost spring time temperatures of the 50s after nothing but 30s and 40s since my return from Africa three weeks ago, it propelled me to 97 miles by then with still an hour until dark. I had more vigor in my legs than I could have hoped for after an uneven night of sleep—four hours on the train before its arrival in Toledo at three am and then another four hours in the station on a bench.  I had to go another ten miles from Mount Clemens before I could find a place to camp.  I bypassed a most inviting cemetery and a thick forest a couple miles beyond, as there was too much traffic to slip into them without the risk of being reported by a suspicious motorist knowing what I was up to.  The forest I chose in a park along a river was not as isolated as I would have preferred, as I could see the lights of a couple of homes through the trees, but it was late and cold enough by then not to worry about anyone being out.

I’ll be camping out one more night before I’ll be sleeping indoors when I visit Rick in Lansing and then Kirk in Battle Creek as I head home visiting a handful more Carnegies and getting my legs tuned up before leaving for France a week after I return.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Pair of Classic Cycle Touring Books

When I peruse the shelf of bike books at the libraries I visit in my travels, there are two books on touring that I see more than any other--"The World Up Close, A Cyclist's Adventures on Five Continents," by Kameel Nasr and "Odysseus' Last Stand, The Chronicles of a Bicycle Nomad," by Dave Stamboulis.

Both books cover seven years of travel all over the globe, Nasr's in the 1980s and Stamboulis' in the 1990s.  Nasr is of Palestinian heritage and Stamboulis Greek.  They grew up in the United States and are American through and through, but they are both clearly men of the world, comfortable in any culture.  Their books follow a chronilogical format, but they are less diary and more lenghty journal entries on meaningful incidents and encounters sometimes months apart.  As well-seasoned touring cyclists, they fully capture the many satisfactions of traveling by bike and how it opens the doors to much hospitality and goodwill.

They were both in their thirties when they undertook their travels.  The names they chose for their bikes reflect their differing personalities and styles. Nasr, the more reflective and meditative, called his Angel, while Stamboulis, who brought more of a conquest mentality to his biking, called his Odysseus, and occasionally refers to it as his steed.  Nasr is the humble sort, letting his achievements speak for themselves, while Stamboulis lapses into the boastful, writing that he is often told "how brave, courageous, great and amazing" he is, which he doesn’t dispute nor put into perspective as a commonn perception applied to any touring cyclist.  Some of his finest moments are of others "listening wide-eyed to my tales."

They both brought a strong curious nature to their travels and sought out encounters with others.  Stamboulis began his travels in Japan, where he lingered to teach English.  He found himself a Japanese wife who accompanied him the first two years, until they separated as their friction increased to the breaking point.  He doesn't write much about her until their breakup.  And even that merits just a couple of paragraphs.  It is the dawn of the Internet era, so they could stay in touch, but he barely mentions her again and they never reunite.  He seems to be happiest when he meets fellow travelers  who he can trade stories with and impress.  When he lingers on Crete and does some more teaching,  he is disappointed when he drops mentions of bicycling in the Himalayas and no one expresses interest.

Stamboulis concentrated his travels in Asia.  He dips down to New Zealand and Australia, but returns to Asia for another prolonged spell before concluding with a ride across Europe and the US.  Nasr makes it to South America and Africa and all five continents.  Just as was my experience, Colombia was one of his favorite places, though he makes the common mistake of repeatedly spelling it Columbia with a "u."  Stamboulis committed another common faux pas, referring to koalas as "bears."  Neither though commit the third of confusing peddling with pedaling.

Still, these books are very polished and well-edited unlike the plethora (a word that both of them use) of self-published books by those who have undertaken a single long tour that they think merits a book and tend to be riddled with typos and inanities and the thrill of getting a shower.  Nasr and Stamboulis shy away from such petty detail, though Stamboulis does exalt at one point, "I embrace the shower head like a man who has not seen his lover in years."   Nasr and Sramboulis are bonafide touring cyclists and writers. They have gone on to be journalists, though neither have yet to contribute another book to the cycle touring genre.  

Stamboulis precedes each of his chapters with a series of quotes on the traveling life.  Many will be familiar to most readers.  They largely endorse travel, though a few give it a different perspective, such as Emerson calling travel a fool's paradise and Edward Dahlberg asserting, "When one realizes that his life is worthless, he either commits suicide or travels."

Stamboulis, as an emotional sort, is much more prone to tears than Nasr.  Nasr recounts just once being moved to tears, out of gratitude to someone who is kindly towards him.  Stamboulis is brought to tears numerous times.  He cries uncontrollably at the sight of Mount Everest.  He weeps from exhaustion at the summit of a long hard climb.  He and his wife are reduced to tears after a yelling match.  Early in their travels she cries inconsolably at the side of the road, thinking she can't go on.  He cries tears of sadness at the death of his mother during his trip. He returns home in time before she passes.  He fears being bored to tears when he ends his trip, but there are no initial tears or even a "jig of wild celebration" when he reaches the end in San Diego.  He'd been preparing for the end for weeks and could control his emotions.  

Having ridden many of the roads they did, reading these books continually sent me down memory lane.  They are a good representation of the two strands of touring cyclist—the humble, self-satisfied and the chest-thumper who lets all the accolades go to his head.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Dakar Redux

"Lonely Planet" asserted that street stalls selling rice and sauce were "ubiquitous" in Dakar, one of thirteen times that it's team of ten writers covering the eighteen countries, including the Cape Verde Islands, that comprise West Africa, found something "ubiquitous."  Shockingly, litter was not one of those thirteen.  Rather, it was largely obvious and mundane items such as ATMs and power cuts in Nigeria, mobile cell phones and chop bars in Ghana, tea in Mauritania, salads in Morocco, and corn and beans in Cape Verde.  

Only once in 514 pages was litter alluded to.  It came in a blue-highlighted paragraph encouraging travelers to purify water rather than buying it, acknowledging that "plastic water bottles and plastic bags are one of the most visible scourges across the West African landscape."   It didn't specify any other scourges, though adjectives beginning with the letter "s" ran rampant through the book, led by "stunning" with 45 and "spectacular" with 35.  Among the other s's were splendid, superb, stately, sublime, sleek, swanky, sweeping, suave, succulent, serene, sensational, swishy, shabby, shoddy, scruffy, spooky, sopoforic.  One writer twice described bathrooms as salubrious.

The f's were strongly represented as well with 42 items deemed fascinating, 32 fantastic and 22 fabulous.  The f-parade continued with fancy, friendly, famous, frenetic, frosty, formal , funky, finicky, frumpy, fabled, fine, flourishing and frenzied.  It's fact-checkers certainly have their work cut out for them determining whether something is indeed stunning or just fantastic.  It's no easy task quantifying a beach or a view or some basilica. 

I was ready to call into question its fact-checkers for allowing the rice and sauce joints in Dakar to be called ubiquitous as I was having a hard time finding any.  There was virtually no street or bargain food to be found in the downtown area other than the occasional stand offering omelet a baguette.  Although it looks like a hunk of food, the baguettes are so light and fluffy they do little to appease my hunger.  Besides eggs some stands fill the baguette with a bean paste or even spaghetti.  Some sandwich-makers are unwilling to put the spaghetti into my bowl as they have just enough to make sandwiches and don't want to have leftover baguettes.  And they're not very nice in their refusal.    It wasn't until I started wandering the side streets around the football stadium did I find those tiny stalls that I knew so well from the countryside with their pots advertising their fare

In the city they weren't so obvious, recessed among rows of tiny, shabby shops with their pots and seating inside.  They may have been in an urban setting, but there could still be goats tethered nearby dining right along with everyone else.

I made not my first food faux pas when I was presented with the above large bowl of rice with hunks of chicken and vegetables when I added a couple of spoonfuls of sauce from a bowl sitting on the table, not knowing it was a hot sauce of inferno proportions that one only needed a dab of.  My mouth was immediately scalded.  If I had immediately spat it out, no one would have been offended, not with two little girls unabashedly taking a pee right out front.

It was such a huge bowl of rice I was able to eat enough uncontaminated rice around the edges to reduce its volume so that it would fit into my Tupperware bowl.  I had some spaghetti back in my hotel room that I could mix in to lower the heat index.

My hotel room was as rustic as the street.  I had my own toilet, but it was badly fractured. The faucets in the sink weren't dispensing water and the shower head only gave a trickle. The door to the bathroom was off its hinges, paint was peeling everywhere and the windows didn't look as if they'd been washed this millennium.  It had once been a stately accommodation in the city center.  But it hadn't been maintained, as is the way here.  All it had going for itself was its location.

My return to Dakar on a Sunday with the traffic greatly reduced, made it not such an unpleasant ride.  My introduction to it seven weeks ago biking in from the airport and two rides out, the second after arriving by ferry a week ago, were veritable nightmares in bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles and miles on roads with little room for bicycles.  I had been reduced to a crawl, but this time I could zip right in, happy to stop at places of familiarity where I could get banana flour balls and spaghetti.  When I head out to the airport tomorrow, I'll stock up on more of those banana flour balls for my seven-hour layover in Istanbul and hopefully save a couple for Janina and be able to share some with her daughter Annia, who will actually be joining me on the second leg of my flight, connecting from Beirut.  She's coming home for her mother's birthday and also a writing project. 

It was a pleasure to meander around Dakar Sunday afternoon with little traffic to contend with able to gaze about at the shops and the sites.  The many mosques with their high towers dominate the skyline.  With my increased fabric consciousness I noticed an abundance of fabric stores, some clustered together and others on their own.

They offer an even wider array of patterns than I realized existed.

The women in their brightly colored every-day garb are a startling contrast to the otherwise run-down and drab surroundings with litter and dirt everywhere.

Their garb can be stunning, if not spectacular.

They may dress as if they're on the way to pay the queen a visit, but they're clearly not.

Though they could have been bearing gifts.

I could stand on any street corner and imagine I was watching a beauty, or at least clothes, pageant.

As I bike along here in Dakar and everywhere in these travels, my eye has been constantly arrested by a dress I'd like to stop and photograph.

During my Sunday exploration of Dakar I happened upon a side street lined with the ware of peddlers of bike parts spread on the sidewalk. There were the tires I was looking for, but not new enough.  Someone was willing to sell me a washer for my pump, but for the price of the pump that he removed it from.  I will simply rely on my backup pump as I have for the past few weeks.  I had to wait until Momday for the well-stocked bike shop, as it was closed. I was hoping it would have Schwalbe or Continental tires, but all it had were not so impressive Indian-branded tires, so I'll stick with what I have for my remaining few miles.  

It was back to being a nightmare biking around grid-locked Dakar, and more of a nightmare than I could want, as I was rear-ended by a cabbie in the bumper-to-bumper traffic.  We were just inching along, so all he did was give me a nudge and mangle my fender, but still I wasn't happy about being hit.  The driver got out and offered his hand, but of course no apology or compensation.  I stuck out my hand open-palmed and demanded a thousand francs ($2) caught up in the fury of the moment.  He just smiled and pointed at his bumper claiming I had damaged his dilapidated car.  "You hit me, you hit me," I shouted and then began calling, "Gendarme, gendarme."  

Traffic was blocked and a crowd was gathering.  A couple of guys started pulling on my bike to get me out of the way.  They were mean and surly.  It didn't look like anyone was coming to my defense.  There appeared to be no hope for me, so I tugged the bike away from them and quickly caught up with the backed-up traffic ahead and inched past them to the side, happy that the bike was rideable and to escape what was turning ugly.  Whatever luster there was biking around Dakar was now gone as well as my cloak of invincibility. I headed to the much-neglected Independence Park a couple blocks from my hotel and found a shady spot to eat an omelet sandwich and gaze upon the empty and fractured fountain that at one time had been the city's glory and was now a symbol of a different sort--minimal initiative and a tattered Africa.

I didn't mind at all this trip is coming to an end.  The hardships of Africa are many and its rewards few.  The few whites I've seen in Dakar all look like beleaguered aid workers, not tourists enjoying themselves. Despite their reputation for hospitality, the majority of Sengeleae I've encountered have been a somber, barely tolerant lot, not very welcoming at all. They seem to regard me as one of those people who have come to help them when they think they don't need any help.  Rather than being happy to see me, they pretend I'm not there.   I'm generally ignored when I enter a shop.  Those who respond to me are generally the hustlers, hoping to get something from me.  When I pulled up to the hotel I'd stayed at in Dakar before, two guys on the sidewalk latched on to me and led me to the entry, hoping to get credit for bringing me to the hotel.  When the guy I knew from my first visit greeted me with a hand shake, the two hangers-on immediately evaporated.  

When I was in China, I regularly heard the refrain, "We need to try to meet Western standards in certain matters," such as reducing their smoking and not spitting or littering.  It was a big deal to put garbage cans around cities in China.  The Africans don't seem to care to acknowledge Western standards, or only wish to defy them.  Their cities and towns are a mess.   Civic pride seems non-existent.  At least Senegal's roads were largely first rate, a major step in making a place habitable.

Unfortunately, the road out to the airport, other than the toll road, is narrow and thick with traffic. It will be an ordeal, but at least I know it well, having biked in on it twice and out twice.   I will be at it at daybreak hopefully before the traffic is too intense.  After seven miles it widens from two lanes to four with a bit of a shoulder.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Thies, Senegal

This is turning into one of my all-time great scavenging tours, right up there with Oman when I returned with a couple dozen team water bottles and half a dozen Tour of Oman course markers.  With all the fabric I've been gathering along the road, this may exceed that one in volume and as well as weight, not to mention novelty.   I've long been at capacity, but I keep spotting another dazzling piece that I can't resist, and manage to stuff it under the bungee cords securing my tent and sleeping bag and day-back atop my rear panniers.  My load of piled fabric flapping in the breeze has to cause no end of befuddlement.  I am a site akin to the occasional salesman cyclist I encounter draped with legitimate merchandise. 

I can't wait to hand my booty over to Janina and see what she makes of it--both literally and figuratively. Many of the patterns simulate her painting, which features drifting and floating squares.  She'll be fascinated by all the networks of squares and triangles and circles and may well have an explanation on their meaning and how they were derived.  Whether she turns it all into a quilt or sash or some article of clothing or wall hanging, all the dazzling colors and patterns will make it an Amazing Technicolor Dream Something or Other.  Hopefully she doesn't throw up her arms and exclaim, "What is all this?  You've got to be kidding."   But she has a scavenging gene as well.  Her garage and breezeway are full of bolts and wire and oatmeal boxes and sundry unimaginable items that she has collected, many from the roadside, with hopes of making art of it some day.  I'm eager to see what all this fabric inspires in her.

Each piece has a personal and significant story.  One can only imagine it's previous life before being discarded and not repurposed.  It is certainly a statement on the culture of Senegal that all this fine fabric has gone to waste with no one recognizing it's possible reuse until an American riding his bike around their country rescued it.  It took a while too before I realized what a bounty there was.  I was overlooking the fabric, as it was dominated by all the plastic.  But once I realized amongst all the refuse was cloth that Janina would appreciate I turned a more keen eye to all the litter.  

The fabric was often only revealing a fragment of its beauty through the dirt that had engulfed it, but I became adapt at spotting the diamonds.  I'd only gathered a token five or six items until my 500 mile jaunt up from Dakar to Mauritania where the litter was in great profusion.  I could have gathered a truck load of garments if I cared to.  I could be selective enough that if I saw a woman wearing a distinctive patterned dress that I hadn't seen before, I kept my eyes peeled for a similar design along the road.  Some of the garments have enough wear left in them, I suspect that a woman just grew tired of wearing the same dress day after day and no longer wished to be identified by it and wanted it out of her sight.  I have noticed that women don't seem to have much of a wardrobe and repeatedly wear the same dress, which at first look seems something worn on special occasions, but is actually one's every day dress. 

On my home stretch run back to Dakar, the baobabs began appearing again 100 miles south of St. Louis, distracting me a bit from the litter.

What I was most on alert for though was women along the road with packets of cold water to keep hydrated in the intense heat.  The thermometer on my watch registered 108 degrees, the hottest yet.    They were easy to spot with a large cooler and a sample bag on top.  Even in the searing, 100-degree heat, they can keep the packets cold with ice packs in their containers.  Frequently I'll drink one immediately on the spot and then buy a couple more to fill my thermal water bottle. Sometimes there are two or three women at the same spot each selling the water at ten cents a bag.  Once when I tried to spread my business around between them, the young woman who'd I'd bought my first bag from grabbed the coin I was about to hand to an older woman and said I was her customer.  She was quite adamant about it.

My Camelback thermal water bottle that holds just less than a liter of fluid may be one of my most prized possessions on this trip, keeping water cold that would otherwise be instant soup in this heat.  Cold water going down my throat as I'm bicycling along in this ovenish heat is an unimaginable pleasure.  But I recently learned that I shouldn't be so enamored by Camelback, as it is owned by Vista Outdoors, the largest manufacturer of ammunition in the United States, and maker of the MSR 15, an AR 15-style assault rifle.  Vista also manufacturers Bell and Giro helmets.  Bicyclists have been called upon to boycott these products.  Though it'd be handy to have a second Camelback, one is plenty adequate, so I won't be tempted to support an ammo-manufacturer.

Riding back to Dakar on the same road I biked up I was looking forward to a woman selling slices of watermelon for a dime and the lone shop I'd come upon in this stretch with frozen packets of water.  I bought four of the packs of ice, which hadn't fully melted after even five hours, though they had thawed enough after a couple of hours to break up one by one and put in my Camelback.  Knowing I had ice cold water on hand made the heat much more endurable.  It was positive bliss to be sitting under a tree in the semi-desert with ice cold water going down my throat.  I could savor it inch by inch as it flowed to my stomach.

Twice in the last week I have awoken to a front flat tire after picking up a thorn as I've pushed my bike across fields to camp.  I should have replaced my front tire when I passed through Dakar last week, but I feared by lingering in the city I'd have a hard time escaping its sprawl that night to camp.  So that will be one of my projects on my final day in Dakar so I don't have to worry about a flat on my forty-mile ride to the airport or my sixteen-mile ride from O'Hare back to Janina's. That ride home in thirty degree temperatures will be s shock to the system after the extreme heat here.  But as always it is a ride I'm looking forward to.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Along the Mauritania Border

Rather than trying to slip into Mauritania for two or three days and subjecting myself to its treacherous roads and nerve-racking border officials, I simply rode along its border for a hundred miles or so, stopping in at three border crossing sites across the Senegal River--one over a dam and the other two by ferry.

It was a relief to be approaching a border without having to worry about going through all the rigmarole, but I still couldn't help but feel a little tension, especially at the main crossing at Rosso with its swarm of hustlers and touts and money-changers.  Several jogged alongside me telling me I had passed the office where I needed to get my passport stamped.  None wanted to accept that I had simply come to give this ferry crossing a look.  

A primitive, small barge provided the transport. It wouldn't take much for an overloaded truck to capsize it. I didn't mind at all that I wouldn't be boarding it.  If I had decided to venture into Mauritania I would have chosen the dam.  It's a bit out of the way off the main highway, but said to have a minimum of hassle.

The river was rarely visible from the road that somewhat paralleled it.  The terrain alternated between barren desert and stretches where there was decent soil and irrigation had turned it productive.  There was sugar cane, rice, ochre, onions, melons and more.  One night I was able to camp on a path between rice paddies, but another night I was caught in a stretch of emptiness and ducked into a walled in compound of farm equipment when I noticed a security guard sitting at the entrance.  I assumed he was there for the night.  He was happy to let me pitch my tent inside.

Now that I'm shoulder to shoulder with the Sahara, the air has turned browner than ever with the wind stirring up the sand of this vast, ever-increasing desert the size of the continental US.  There were occssional irrigation canals where people went for water and could take a swim.  At one a cluster of women frantically waved at me as I passed.  I was surprised so see that several were topless and seemed to be beckoning.  None objected to being photographed.

No more baobabs, though I did have a glass of its juice specially prepared for me.  As I was sitting in the shade of a tree beside a village cemetery a young man, who introduced himself as Alieu, sauntered by and asked if I needed anything.  He had grown up in The Gambia so his English was fluent.  He had recently returned to the village of his grandfather and father, who were both buried in the cemetery, to farm their parcel of land.  He had been trying to make a go of it as a fisherman in St. Louis, but that is a tough life with lots of competition, so was glad to give the farming a try.  He resorted to the Internet regularly when he had questions of what to do.  I asked if there were any baobabs in the vicinity.  There weren't.  Next I asked if he liked baobab juice.  He said he did and said if I'd like some there was someone in the village who made it.  

He had already invited me to come hang out at his home in this heat for the next few hours as he would until five o'clock, when he would return to his fields.  I was actually getting ready to be on my way when he had stopped by.  I told him the breeze I created as I biked made the heat not so bad.  I would ride an hour then cool off in the shade for a spell and was just fine.  This sun though was intense.  The Brazilian cyclists said their solar panels had never worked so well as during their time in Mauritania.
I had my day planned out and didn't care to linger too long, but couldn't resist the opportunity for a freshly made glass of baobab juice.  It was a tough slog through the sand to his village on the other side of the road.  We joined a cluster of folk who were laying on rugs in the shade of a three-sided shelter.  A young boy brought me a glass of cold water.  

When I asked if I could take a picture of everyone, Alieu said in their culture the men and women sit separately, so that meant two photos of the group.  Alieu is in the middle.

I asked if I could watch the preparation of the baobab juice.  Alieu said it would take a while and it was best if I just waited with the others in the shade.  After a few minutes a woman brought me a soft pad and pillow, which I declined.  Alieu said his friend beside us had a bad shoulder and wondered if I knew any remedies for it.  I showed him an exercise I used when I had a broken collarbone and my shoulder stiffened up--bending over and letting the stiff arm dangle and then slowly rotating it like a butter churn.  Shortly after that a woman presented me with some x-rays of her son's withered arm.  Alieu said everyone assumed I was a doctor, as volunteer doctors are the only whites they have contact with.

Half an hour later Alieu said it would still be a while before the juice was ready.  I was  headed to check out the ferry in Dagan, just six miles away, and then would return to St. Louis.  I told Alieu that maybe I should continue on my way and come back in an hour or so.  He thought that was a good idea.  I was delayed though by a flat tire and more rough sandy roads through Dagan to the dormant ferry, just a pirogue that could take individuals across the river.  There was no immigration office.

Alieu and a dozen others were still under the shelter when I returned an hour later than I thought I would.  They had awaited my return for the final touches of the juice, a prolonged hearty stir and addition of sugar.  During the procedure Alieu excused himself to go pray at the nearby mosque, accompanied by the other men, while the women remained.

When the juice was completed they let me sample it to see if I would like any more sugar.  It was plenty sweet, enough so that I asked for it to be diluted with more water, which would add to the volume of the  bottle they were sending me off with.  It was the fourth or fifth time I had had the juice.  All were divine, but this was extra special. Before I was on my way we went on line and became Facebook friends.  Alieu said it was important for the Sengelese to be hospitable and was happy to have had the opportunity.  Someone the day before had also invited me to his home "to show how we live" but there haven't been as many examples of this as I was told there would be, probably because my French isn't fluent enough and that being the predominant language.