Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Sweet Stink of Victory

One week left! It's just seven days until, after a victorious six months that have included sixteen glorious countries, and Liechtenstein, I can finally climb off the saddle for winter. That's if the saddle doesn't come off before then. It's falling apart. So are my handlebar grips, held together as they are with duct tape. And so are most of my clothes. Falling apart, that is, not held together with duct tape. Though that's an idea.

These last few weeks have been a lot harder than any that came before. For a start, there has been the heat, but I've already whinged about that and so I'll shut up about it. But to avoid the worst of the heat, I've been setting off at first light every day to grab at least an hour or two of cool morning air. It's been a bit like having a job. What am I talking about? Has it bollocks! This has been fun. Hard, but fun. It's nothing like having a job.

But the biggest difficult has been the lack of rest days. Because I need to get back to somewhere near Malaga airport for a flight to Majorca for the Open University's astronomy residential that kicks off in a week and a half, I need to be done by the 7th. And to finish by then, and to complete the rest of the route, it means I'll only have managed to have had two days off the bike since the 24th July. That's not enough. My legs are tired, my face is burnt and, worst of all, my trainers absolutely stink.

The Spanish road system hasn't helped, leading to extra, totally unnecessary miles. Spain has upgraded a lot of its A-roads to motorways, meaning that there is no longer a bicycle-friendly A-road between some major towns, just a motorway. I'm not supposed to go on motorways. I've sneaked on a couple when there really was no other option, ignoring the blaring horns of trucks warning me of my indiscretion. Although I've yet to be stopped, I was once beeped by the rozzers coming in the opposite direction. I'm not sure what they would have done if they'd been on my side of the road. Lucky for me, Spain abolished the death sentence in 2009.

Portugal is even more annoying. It didn't even bother to upgrade its A-roads to motorways. It just designated some bits of them with an IP number and that means faster traffic, minimal to zero hard shoulders and definitely no bikes. I tried one of those but I nearly cacked myself, and that really wouldn't have helped the trainers. I got off at the next turnoff and had a lie down.

But back to Spain. Between now and the 7th I need to get to and from Gibraltar to tick off my last capital for the year and, looking at the map, I'm really not sure how I'm going to manage that. Even the best one I can find only shows motorway access to Gibraltar. It looks like I'll be sneaking on another. Or does it still count if I arrive by hot air balloon?

So, one week from today, I will be sat drinking a large, icy beer on a deserted beach somewhere on the Costa del Sol. But, I hear you cry, there are no deserted beaches on the Costa del Sol. There will be when my trainers arrive.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Christian Etiquette and Tramp Chow Mein

Today has been an experience. I've honestly had two of the most depressing episodes in my entire six month long ride. It's not your fault, so don't blame yourself. Just settle back and read this shite.

First of all, I'm sorry. I lied to you. I did it for the right reasons - for comic effect - but I was repaid double. Y'see, in my last post, I mentioned that I'd been to a Chinese in Zaragoza where, thanks to sloppy serving, I had three courses on my table at once, and that the meal had lasted 15 minutes. That wasn't exactly true. I only ever had two courses on my table at any one time, which is bad enough, and the meal lasted about 45 minutes, which is still fast food, but it's been beaten here in a cheap Chinese in Segovia, and in quite spectacular fashion.

Here's what I ordered: hot 'n' sour soup, Vietnamese spring rolls, and sizzling duck with plain rice. Oh, and a bottle of wine. The wine arrived first - good. Then the soup. Thirty seconds into the soup, after hearing the frazzling of the spring rolls from the kitchen, came those little Asian parcels. OK, maybe the two startery things come at once. The main course will obviously wait. But no, the rice was there within another 30 seconds, and then - Jesus! - the sizzling duck arrived another minute after that. So, for the record, four courses (if we count the rice as a course, which they did on the menu) on the table at once. Super!

The soup was alright - nothing special - but the Vietnamese rolls were burnt, as though they'd been napalmed, which seemed appropriate, and by the time I got to the sizzling duck it had become emulsified duck, and wasn't really duck - just duck fat - but let's not forget that this was cheap. And it needed to be cheap because, sorry Mum, I'm now a tramp.

Yes, shortly after I arrived in Segovia, I was accosted by three young South American girls who wanted to tell me that God loves me. That's nice, I thought, that He's singled me out. But they didn't mean that. He loves everyone, the slag. We had a theological discusssion where I explained that I really didn't think there was a need for God in our understanding of the universe, and that, to me, the word 'spiritual' was just a substitute for the word 'emotional'. We all got on. Belief obviously made them happy. I had no use for it. No one was converted but we both walked away with a respectful understanding of each other. No crusades were launched. No one was stoned to death. Lovely.

Then half an hour later, I came across another bunch of Christians, all singing and flag waving. As they marched through the main square, one of 'em made eye contact and came over. He explained that he was from New Zealand and had once found happiness in girls and beer and surfing - which sounds pretty ideal to me - but God has shown him that this was wrong, the tool, and that there was another way. Right, not really interested in this story but can you tell me why Christians keep picking on me and telling me that God loves me? He replied, and I quote, "Because you look a bit red and sunburnt and that you might be homeless, and living on the streets". Mmm, cheers. God loves me 'cos I look like a hobo. How depressing!

Sadly, as it turns out, I am homeless. My flat in Blackburn is rented out. The closest thing I have to a home at this moment is a tent. There's always my mum and dad's. But that cheeky, presumptous shite didn't know that. Anyway, let's not dwell on his delusion. Back to the Chinese.

My meal looked like it was going to last twenty minutes if that. Now, I think that if you're going to pay 20 or 30 quid for a meal it should at least last an hour and half. And so, if only to amuse myself, I decided that it would do. I sat there and waited, and the staff glared at me, like I was shitting on their favourite beige rug. I'd love to say that they were a Gang of Four, but there were only three of 'em. Now, I have a little notebook in which I write stuff down, things like where I've been or the answers to maths assignments. And it's red. You might even say that it's a Little Red Book. The obvious Communist connotations (which I'm hoping are obvious - if not, I'm sorry) got them thinking. Is he a Maoist spy perhaps? Mmm. (Yes, I am, but they didn't know that.)

Eventually, after half an hour of glaring, I decided to go for dessert. Unfortunately, the lead and only Spanish-speaking member of staff had popped out for some reason, leaving a fat-headed bint in charge. I asked, in Spanish, if she had any ice cream. "You want bill?" she replied. No, ice cream. "Bill?" No, ice cream. "Bill?" No. I checked with the only other occupied table, a young Spanish lass feeding her boyfriend, who had both his hands bandaged. Was I pronouncing 'ice cream' correctly in Spanish? Si! Eventually fathead brought the menu and I pointed. Sorted! And a brandy? "The bill?" No. A fuckin' brandy. "The bill?" So I walked to the bar and reached for the bottle. Ah, now she got it. The ice cream and brandy arrived and I tried my best attempt at 'thank you' in Mandarin, which sounds something like "shear she" and always raises a smile. Now we were friends. The glaring stopped. I was no longer shitting on their carpet. But I was still a dirty, smelly, disgusting tramp. Happy days!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Baptise Me, Lord, And See My Nipples

Part of this has stopped being fun. Unfortunately it's the cycling part, the bit that takes up six to eight hours of my day. Now that I've hit Spain, the temperatures have gone mental. Yesterday it was 167C, and this is still northern Spain, in the shade. My stupid eyebrows exploded right off my face, which has at least solved one problem.

And in order to finish the tour with enough time to reach Majorca in early September for the OU astronomy residential, I've had to up the daily mileage. Today it was around 140 kilometres, and that's not actually a joke, although I wish it were. It was boiling. Every half an hour I'd buy a bottle of cold water, and within ten minutes it was tepid. Ten minutes later, the plastic had melted.

But eventually I reached my target, Zaragoza, a Spanish city I knew absolutely nothing about. Was it industrial? Was it a secret gem? Was it twinned with Peckham? I didn't know. From the smoking stacks visible from the hills around, it didn't look too promising, and then I descended and things picked up. After negotiating the suburbs, suddenly there was a magnificent mosque-like cathedral. Great! More about that later.

The mosque churchy thing

I cycled around and eventually found a cheapish hotel, the Hotel Sauce, a Carry On film hotel name if ever there was one. And then I popped out for a wander. Oh Lordy, what was going on? The streets were full of religious types, all in their teens, from all nations, parading around with banners and t-shirts and testosterone. Some of 'em were even dressed in robes, and these were, let's not forget, teenagers. Surely God isn't that twisted?

Homoerotic teenage monk fondling

I continued to explore. It turned out that the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, the big churchy thing which isn't a mosque though looks like one from some angles, where some miracle didn't happen in 40AD despite what numpties think*, was to be the centre of a massive international youth Godathon. In the same square as that frankly gorgeous church is an equally impressive water feature. My Mum would love it in her garden. If her garden were eighty times bigger. It's a sort of cascading irregular shape where the water eventually ends up in a trough that could easily accommodate a dozen or so people. The Christians were in there today.

With the wheelchairs gathered around the fountain, it was clear that some well-meaning types had intended to get the crippled walking again with the power of tap water. When that hadn't worked they'd resorted to baptisms. When they'd realised that this was Spain and everyone was already baptised, it basically turned into a wet t-shirt competition with the blokes dunking the girls and then getting semi monk-ons and becoming all guilty about what they would own up to at their next confession.

God loves you! Especially in that wet t-shirt!

Oh hum. I went for a Chinese, which was the quickest meal I've ever had. At one point I had three courses on my table at once. (Here's an idea. Let me finish this course before you bring the next one. OK?) It was soon over - about 15 minutes later - and then I went back out to see how the revival was going on.

Jesus. The square now had a floodlit stage containing a dozen seated Vatican types. At regular intervals a squadron of national Goddies would get up and deliver a monotone piece, while something like two thousand teens sat enrapt. What were they getting out of it? What about nightclubs and cider and feeling up girls in the park? Surely that's fun, not this. This was clearly going to go on for hours.

Where else would you rather be on a Saturday night?

I couldn't take it. The crowd was with them, lighting candles and swaying like alcoholics at a Bryan Adams gig, but I wasn't. Yes, I know you're only 15 but GROW UP! Despite what your t-shirt says, God doesn't love you. You've made Him up. He actually does nothing for you. You, yes you, just have to make this world work for you. Which I suppose is what you're doing. By being happy in your deluded, dream-like state. Which is not really something I can knock you for. Better that than have you smash up the place, like in London or Manchester. Hell, I hate it when religion provides some sort of answer.

Oh, next time, please could you chuck the fit ones into the fountain instead.

* How do I know? Read David Hume's "Of Miracles".

Friday, 12 August 2011

Sailing In Andorra

I'm officially over the hill. I don't mean that I'm in my forties and knackered, though that's true as well, but I have conquered what will probably be my highest peak of the entire three year ride - the Envalira pass to get from France to Andorra. At over 2,400 metres it takes some pedalling. And I didn't see a single other tourer on either side of the hill, just Tour de France types with their big, soppy, helium-filled bikes and total lack of luggage, something that made me feel good and filled me with a sense of smugness usually only granted to Tory MPs.

I didn't know what to expect of Andorra. When I posted my, erm, slightly negative comments about pointless Liechtenstein, I remember someone on Facebook saying that Andorra is just the same but higher. But he or she was very, very wrong. Andorra is absolutely gorgeous. It could be the delirium of getting to the top of the hill that made me think that, but I don't think so. It's just endless vistas of beauty. And of Andorra la Vella, the capital, I was expecting three houses and a dog, but it's a fantastic, bustling, little city situated in a natural bowl, with the Pyrenees on all sides.

I like it when I turn up somewhere new and I have someone to meet. On this trip I've met some great people. I've told you about some of 'em. But I met one of my favourites, Clare, the most inspiring, wonderful woman I've probably ever encountered, in Andorra. To look at her, she seems like any other 65 year old woman, but bloody hell has she had an amazing life? And she has the energy of a busload of 18 year old girls with firecrackers in their pants. She's driven across Asia, and sailed to everywhere except Jupiter, and has a million stories to tell. Her husband, a spritely if now slightly deaf 95 year old called Edward, is also a legend. He started sailing when he was six years old and continued into his early nineties. He's been around the world more times than the moon. I wanted to suck his sailing knowledge out of his head with a straw, but I suspect it wouldn't have helped his hearing.

People like Clare amass friends in the way that most of us amass bills - effortlessly - and she introduced me to several interesting ones, including an OU student called Kirsty, and Cathy, a motivational speaker, who's climbed Everest from both sides. That afternoon Clare was volunteering as an interpreter for non-Catalan speakers at the local, immaculately maintained hospital. She took me along for a look around. She introduced me to a British patient there and said, "This is Steven. He's just cycled over Envalira today. Can you imagine that?" I smiled. "Yes, I can," she replied. "A friend of mine does it every year when he comes to see us. He's seventy." My smugness withered and died.

I've tried hard to get my Mum online. She dabbles with the internet but it doesn't come easy. I didn't even bother with my Dad. But both Clare and Edward are computer demons. I showed him UGRIB, a freeware application for downloading global weather data, something unimaginable when he was sailing. To see him on the PC made me want to shake my Dad and say, "Look how much fun you can have with a computer!" But, if my Dad did use it, I know he'd only end up downloading naked pictures of Ann Widdecombe.

I stayed the night at Clare and Edward's. Their living room is stunning, with large windows that frame the mountain views around them. I would have loved to have stayed longer and heard more stories, but Clare was off to the UK the next day with an absolutely mental itinerary, seeing about four hundred different friends in a week that involved driving about two thousand miles. I spent less than twenty four hours in her company but I felt like I'd known her all my life. They've both written a handful of books about their sailing experiences. I'll hunt them out when I get home and get my stories that way.

So, if there is a God, which there isn't, but never mind, as I enter my sixties, please give me Clare's energy. And as I approach my mid-nineties, please can I have Edward's mental capacity? Hell, give it to me now. Half of it will do. OK then, a quarter. Just do what you can, God.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

So Long And Thanks To All The Swiss

I think I judged the Swiss unfairly when I wrote that "everyone seemed to lumber around like zombies". Generalisations are always lazy. I think that may just apply to everyone in Zürich. Yes, everywhere else the people were lovely, eager to return a smile, sometimes even initiating them. It's not what you expect from an even partly Germanic people. Those five years I had in Graz were spent smiling at people only to receive endless frosty glares. Don't misunderstand me. Mine weren't leery, you-fancy-some? smirks, but casual, top-o'-the-morning-to-you beamers. Bugger 'em, I thought, I'm just going to keep on smiling. Then I asked the German wife of a friend of mine what she would think if a stranger smiled at her and she replied, "I'd just think he was mental". Fair enough. But the Swiss don't think like that and, for that, I thank 'em.

And although Zürich's prissiness didn't really do it for me, as I've already written, and Lucerne looks an identical copy except for the addition of a mountain, Switzerland grew on me the farther west I went. Although at least one of my Zürich-dwelling Facebook friends described Bern as 'a toilet', I quite liked it. But I come from Blackburn, and I know a toilet when I see it. No, Bern had a bit of atmosphere. I still couldn't afford to breathe there but you can't have it all. And then, just down the road from Bern, there was Fribourg, a stunning, little place with a magnificent bridge over its huge gorge. To the west of Switzerland the villages get a little shabbier and more, well, French, but they're better for it. At least you can imagine the people there doing human things, like having sex or going to the toilet, unlike some of the places out east that I passed through. So, thank you, west Switzerland for enabling me to really enjoy the place.

But the biggest thank you for Switzerland goes to Elli, who washed my clothes, and dried my tent, provided a bed for two nights and a day-long family of cycling partners, a safe place for my bike during the maths residential and de-stinked a fatty marmot for my dinner. And then, as a bonus, she served me donkey milk for my final breakfast. It was...interesting. Apparently it's the closest thing to breast milk you can get. Apart from breast milk, which even generous Elli was reluctant to provide. So thank you, Elli.

When it comes down to it, I'm not sure of a person's motives for visiting Switzerland. There's nothing it has that its neighbours don't have, and the prices are double, but if you want to meet nice, friendly people or stay in a country where you probably won't get stabbed in the face, or if you fancy marmot stew, I suppose it's not to be entirely discounted. (Except for the marmot stew. That's only for special visitors.) If your motive is just to tick off another country or another capital then you, and I, have to accept that we're just going to have to pay for the pleasure. But I'm really glad I did, thanks.