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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Think Small, Save the World

Several Western nations are poised to act with military intervention in Syria, with the aim of stopping Assad. The regime's alleged use of chemical weapons is the reasoning behind this. The stated goal is to stop an inhuman regime from killing its people with chemical weapons.

Of course, the rebels aren't all the team of freedom fighters we'd like to think they are; they are largely fundamentalists, and they've committed their own share of atrocities. And saving people from chemical weapons by using other weapons that will cause "collateral damage" is ridiculous; I know I wouldn't feel that I had been saved if my saviours accidentally killed my family. Furthermore, the use of chemical weapons could have been staged to promote military intervention. I don't know what the truth is, nor will I blindly accept the media's slant on the truth.

So instead of thinking big, of buying into a version of the truth, an ideology, of stopping Assad; I'd like to think small, of helping a Syrian child, for example, who has been the victim of a brutal war.
Instead of thinking big and paying taxes to provide weapons or to support military intervention to topple Assad and save the world with a lot of "collateral damage" along the way, I'd like to think small and ride a bicycle from Western Europe to Syria. I am hoping to encourage others to think small, that is, in human terms, and to contribute a little money, which will go to the International Rescue Committee's Syrian refugee crisis fund, or to Polish Humanitarian Action, whose members work inside Syria to deliver goods and medical aid to the victims of the war.

Enough money redirected from providing weapons to helping people in need will get rid of every Assad who pops up.

So put political ideology aside for a while, stop thinking big, and think small, in human terms. Stop  pondering the best way to use weapons to make the world "safe for Democracy", and act to provide for those caught in a war rife with ideologies.

Here's how you can think small to save the world; put ten bucks or ten euros aside and donate to:  Polish Humanitarian Action;

or to International Rescue Committee


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The First Three Weeks; a Summary

On July 31st at 0745 I cycled down the gravel road from where I'd lived in the village of Montecchio Precalcino and headed southwest to get to Paris, then Syria. If this doesn't make sense, keep in mind I'd walked from Portugal to Morocco a year and a half earlier to get to Egypt via Europe. Anyway, down the hill I went with one of my new 'Cycling to Syria' t-shirts on and a red and white keffiyeh on my head, saddened at leaving my surrogate family behind, exhilarated to be on the long road again, anxious for the same reason, and a little annoyed that my odometer wasn't working after all the preparation I'd done. At the bottom of the hill I turned right onto the asphalt towards my first hosts waiting 120 kilometers away, and with the adrenalin of a new journey I pedalled along at 20k/hr until realizing I'd better slow down a little if I was ever going to reach my final destination.

In Montecchio Precalcino, my friend and host Sabina had tried to drum up a little publicity for the start. I'm not big on publicity; during my walk to Egypt I had let publicity find me and not the other way around. But this time I was cycling to raise money for a cause, for two NGO's, International Rescue Committee and Polish Humanitarian Action. Without publicity there would be no one to donate to these organizations. But the media wasn't interested, so the starting ceremony was composed of the four members of the family that had taken me in and cared for me the previous three weeks while I earned a little money working on an organic farm. We'd said our goodbyes quietly, everyone was a little sleepy, and they'd stretched out a green ribbon in front of Knulp, my bike. I'd cut the ribbon, and Sabina had handed me half of it to keep. I tied it around Knulp's head tube, and off I went.

For the next couple of days I pushed hard, not so much because I wanted to, but because I had to to reach my hosts. I stayed near Mantova the first night, with Francesca, Gian Carlo and Nico at an old rustic farmhouse. It was a good ending for a hard first day on the road. We talked about everything and drank Gian Carlo's Lambrusco. I'm sure I've acquired yet another surrogate family with these guys. Francesca gave me a wonderful gift, a wish balloon, just like the one I'd seen in the desert in Sinai only a few months earlier. The wind caught it and it sped westward into the night, until it looked like a distant, flickering star. So my trip westward was assured, anyway. Gian Carlo gave me a bottle of homemade Lambrusco, and he was worried about the extra weight I'd have to carry.
"A bottle of your Lambrusco is weightless," I'd said, or something to that effect. By the time I'd  left Milan it really was weightless.

The next day I cycled 147 k to reach a host who was farther than I'd thought. Thirty plus kilometers farther. I was glad no one was cycling with me because they wouldn't have been pleased with my inattention to certain details, like where exactly the destination was. I arrived at 10 pm exhausted. I was fed well and immediately went to bed. The next morning I was off to Milan.

In Milan I did some house sitting for my friend Cristina, and some cat sitting, but her father, Renzo, came twice a day to cook for the both of us, so I'm not so sure I was really house sitting. Renzo helped me make Gian Carlo's Lambrusco bottle weightless. I also visited my friend Sara a few times. We'll meet again in Belgrade or Istanbul or someplace without even trying, I'm sure of that. I'm pretty sure we've met a few times in previous lives, if there are previous lives.

In Como, Italy I was invited to stay at a university dorm full of Chinese students by Qin. She made me a nice Chinese meal, unlike any meal I ever had at a Chinese restaurant.

In Switzerland I'd already paid for a few things with euros before I realized Swiss Francs are used in this non-EU nation. I just cycle on without a clue sometimes. I stayed in Lugano with Barbara, and as far as I was concerned I was still in the north of Italy as we ate loads of pasta and drank a little (ahem) wine. Just more of Italy but with a different currency, Swiss Francs.

After Lugano the mountains began , the real mountains, and by the end of a hard day I was camped by a river near Airolo and San Gottardo Pass, where I was stuck for a couple of soggy and somewhat anxious days in thunderstorms, as related in my previous post. I got through San Gottardo Pass, the highest point I would be in the Swiss Alps, and for the next two nights, as I headed towards Basel, I camped at paid campsites, there being no abandoned houses or discreet wilderness campsites in view. At both campsites I met people who are now friends, the first being a Dutch trekking cyclist named Casper who lives in Switzerland, the second a German woman named Julia who's got a Moto Gucci she travels on.

Then finally, Basel, where I stayed with high altitude hiking host Beatrice, and for the first night there, also with two travelling musicians from Germany and Sweden. With Beatrice I would get the opportunity to float down the Rhine River, through Basel, clutching my 'fish bag', a waterproof bag which serves as a container for your clothes and a float. It seems to be the thing to do in Basel in the summertime, as we were not alone. Beatrice gave me a tour of old Basel, which to me looked like a reproduction of something I'd seen in Disney World, somewhere in the Epcot Center maybe.

Switzerland is a bit of a paradise if you have a lot of money, or even if you haven't, if you've got people to host you. Everything seems... perfect. Cyclists have their own lanes, not only in the cities but also on big roads. There are roadsigns for cyclists. Motorists respect your space. And cyclists follow the rules. They stop at stop lights, stay on the bike paths. Having been trained on the streets of Milan, I was a bit of a renegade as I hopped from sidewalk to road to bikepath, cycling through red lights and down one way streets. People stared.
Yes, so, old Basel, like a Disneyland street reproducing old Basel. Or like a movie set reproducing old Basel. That's how perfect Basel seemed. Beatrice seemed almost offended by my referring to Basel as perfect.
"Zurich is far more perfect," she said.
She also pointed out the slightly less than perfect nature of her neighborhood, which is an immigrant neighborhood.
"Look at the rubbish," she said. But I noticed all the rubbish that had been put out was in perfect, blue, official Basel rubbish bags. No rubbish on the streets.
I tried hard to look for imperfections in Basel. While watching a concert along the Rhine I did notice a beer bottle floating by. Aha!
The night before heading into France I showed Beatrice my photos of San Gottardo Pass to impress her. She showed me photos of herself high atop even higher parts of the Alps, looking down from the peaks instead of up at them. Also photos of the Andes and other far more impressive places. Never try to impress the Swiss with your photos of mountains.

In France the bike paths and lanes stopped and I was once again being squeezed by big trucks onto the margins of the road.
I camped for the next two nights in farmer's fields, then cycled to my next host in Langres, a beautiful and interesting walled, hilltop town which I cursed at first, as I pushed my bike up the steep hill it was perched on.
I went to the tourist office first to meet my host's flatmate. Robin pulled out a map of Langres and circled the points I needed to know to navigate the two hundred meters to the house.
"Benjamin is waiting for you," he said.
I navigated the 200 meters successfully and Benjamin, my host, was indeed waiting. The house where he lives is built like a castle, and I had to push through two heavy doors to get into the courtyard. The house is shared by three families, but Benjamin's part of it is spacious, and on two floors. I settled in, had a shower, then got to see his studio, where Benjamin does his sculpting. There were statues and busts along one wall that he had sculpted, statues of soldiers from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and of fantasy figures, and medieval scenes. What was most interesting was that many of these figures were tiny; as big as your fingernail, but sculpted in fine detail. What talent! What finesse! Where I to try this the clay would end up in a little ball, flicked away into a corner.
Though Benjamin's studio is a bit like an artist's garret, he is by no means starving, as he sells these figures online for a price.
For the next couple of days Benjamin and his flatmate, Robin, treated me like a special guest and gave me a tour of the town, which boasts the longest fortress wall in France, and a trip to the countryside to visit the ruins of a Roman estate while having a French picnic. We also played an absurd game of antiquity while at this Roman estate, in which one has to throw a wooden disk onto a gravel filled triangle for points. As I couldn't get the disks to stick to the gravel, the game is absurd.

After Langres, I enjoyed the two most pleasant days of cycling I've had so far, along the banks of the Marne River Canal, often in the wilderness, or passing through tiny villages, and the path absolutely flat with few other cyclists. I stayed in Chaumont at the invitation of a med student from Catalunya, who invited me to an evening French BBQ at an old abbey. Then two more nights camping wild, once in the woods along the Marne, and once in a farmer's field before reaching Reims.

I'm staying in Reims, the city of the coronation of French kings, with my current host, Caroline. Cycle-buddy -to-be Brad is still in Paris, which I avoided as I had no host there (though I've been invited by two people since making that decision not to stay there). Brad and I will meet in the near future, I think, perhaps in Bavaria. Meanwhile I'm heading further away from Syria by cycling towards Belgium; Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. I'll be looking for more work, any work, picking grapes, shoveling manure, anything to help me get on with my mission, which is this:

to raise money for the victims of the war in Syria.

Most of the population there has been displaced. They are homeless and without the basic necessities. If you would like to help these people, you can donate just ten or twenty dollars/euros to:  which will go to International Rescue Committee, or to: which will go to Polish Humanitarian Action. PAH regularly works inside Syria in the most dangerous areas to get goods and medical help to those caught in the middle of a sectarian war.

So please help. Merci!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Getting Through San Gottardo

It hadn't been a bad day cycling from Lugano to just a few kilometers short of San Gottardo Pass; I'd had a nice 50k/hr downhill ride into the UNESCO heritage city of Bellinzona, and then my first serious climb on a bicycle, which I managed to do successfully. I'd cycled 90 kilometers, and now it was time to find a place to camp so I'd be ready for the 2000+ meter pass through the Alps the next day.
I wasn't sure I'd find a spot, as the gorge leading to the pass was crowded with a river, two highways, train tracks and farms, and there was little space for a discreet place to pitch a tent. Getting a cheap room in Airolo, the last village before the pass, was out of the question, as cheap rooms don't exist in Switzerland. But just two or three kilometers from Airolo a gravel lane led down from the road I was cycling on, and to a spot by the river, at the sheltered corner of a farm. It was nearly perfect; the grass was cut short; in front of me were the river, high aspens, and the mountains; behind me a mountain; to my right a thick copse of trees and brush; to my left more brush, but also the only imperfection, a view of a brief stretch of the four lane highway. I sat and relaxed a bit before pitching my tent, then went about the business of setting up camp. The next morning I would cycle the 2 or 3 kilometers to Airolo, have a coffee, recharge my phone (and camera) battery, then climb San Gottardo Pass.

It began raining before nightfall. My tent had been given to me by a friend in Milan; the last cheap tent I'd bought was finished after a Balkan winter. As grateful as I was for the tent, it was made for fair weather, so I had to cover it with two tarps I'd cannibalized from the two previous tents I'd had. This left the lower sides exposed, and it wasn't long before the rain started dripping in. I covered my bike with the poncho I'd started my walk with nearly two years ago but experience had taught me it was far from waterproof. But it was all I had.
Along with the rain came the sounds of thunder. This was encouraging, as I thought it probably meant just a brief period of rain until the thunderstorms passed, but the rain and thunderstorms continued into the night. It became heavier, and at one point hailstones pelted the tent. The thunder grew louder, and more frequent, and there were many close lightning strikes; there was no time at all between the flash and the booming thunder. I sat in my tent occupied with damage control, mopping up the water with a dirty t-shirt and wringing it out through the front flap. I tried to position my things where the water wasn't dripping in, or to get them in plastic bags, but there was no escaping the saturating rain. Everything got wet, including my sleeping bag. Once the heaviest lightning had passed, I fell asleep, but I woke often to grope around to check the flooding (I had given away my headlamp in Egypt, thinking I was done with camping for a while). I woke another time because of the sound of the river; it had become a raging torrent, and I was worried it might overflow it's banks.The rain continued all night long, heavy at times, light at others, but it was incessant, and while the sounds of thunder were more distant, the sound of the river became a surging din.
In the morning I ate stale bread and granola cereal and washed it down with water. I still had another liter of water, and more bread, so I decided to wait out the rain. Surely it would stop soon. But it didn't. There were finally some breaks, about two minutes long (I timed them), just long enough for me to step out and check the river but not long enough to have a smoke before the rain came down again. The river had risen considerably; two boulders I'd seen on the opposite bank were nearly submerged, and a small tree near the tent was no longer there. The river was brown now, and violent, and whole trees sped down with it's current. If it got much higher I'd have no choice but to head for Airolo. I decided I'd wait until 5pm to make that decision.
By mid-afternoon the rain stopped for thirty minutes. I was tempted to pack up and go but decided to stay put. I couldn't stay in Airolo and I didn't want to climb the pass in this weather. The rain came down again but by five o'clock it had stopped, and I was certain it was finished despite the clouds still rushing through the gorge. There is beauty even in scenarios like this; smoke seemed to be blowing through the aspens on the mountain opposite me. The river, still torrential, was lower now, as I could see the tops of the boulders on the opposite bank, and the tree I thought had been washed away reappeared, its highest branches thrashing on the surface. Then the rain came again, and I spent another night in a soaked sleeping bag, waking to mop up the water.
All this time in a dark, soggy tent was trying, and aside from the constant mopping I tried to meditate, or write in my journal (I'd protected it enough so that it was merely damp and not wet), or sleep. I was going stir crazy though in the end.
In the early morning hours the rain finally stopped for good. I stepped out to see a few stars poking through the clouds and never felt happier. I could see the little tree near the tent, now nearly free from the river's current, still leaning but upright. At first light I spread my tarps on the ground and sorted things out, wringing clothes and knocking dozens of slugs off of just about everything. I put on my wet shoes and some miraculously dry socks, packed up, and cycled into Airolo, where the early risers looked at me as though I were an alien. I paid a small fortune for coffee and a croissant but I didn't care. After charging my phone, which serves as my camera and GPS, I cycled up into San Gottardo Pass.

Though the climb was a struggle-- it took me 2 1/2 hours to ride or walk Knulp up the steep cobbled road to the top-- I was absolutely elated. These are the moments I love being on the road. The view was tremendous, and I was moving again after being stuck in my leaky tent. I had told myself earlier that I would cycle all the way up, even if it meant stopping every two hundred meters for a break, but once I'd dropped down to the lowest gear and found myself pedalling as hard as I could to do 6 1/2 kilometers per hour, I did some walking. In all I probably walked my bike about half the distance up into the pass. The cobbled road made it that much more difficult to cycle up, and I took some comfort that the only cyclists who passed me going up were on bikes without any luggage. In the meantime, a dozen trekking cyclists passed me going the other way down the cobbled serpentine path. They cycled very slowly because of the steepness of the road and its hairpin curves, but also I suspect to keep from breaking the spokes on their heavy bicycles. I decided that once over the pass I would take the small highway down so that I could enjoy a nice long 50k/hr descent. I would learn later that this decision was a big mistake.
The top of the pass was socked in with fog, and dozens of tourists who had arrived by car were eating in a restaurant. A man was selling bratwurst for 5.50 Swiss Francs each, but despite the high price I was hungry so I bought one and wolfed it down. It was cold so I pulled out the only winter clothing I had left after so much time in Egypt and Italy, a sweatshirt with a hood. I found my highway and I was soon speeding down through the fog. From that point on, for the rest of the day I was braking and keeping my speed down to 20k/hr, first because of the fog, then the wind and cold, then, once again, the rain.
The biggest threat came once I'd broken through the fog. I released the brakes and sped along at 40k/hr before realizing I was shivering so badly I could barely control my bike. I managed to stop at a pullover and I nearly laughed at how badly I was shaking. I tried to roll a cigarette but after two attempts gave it up. After trying to warm up I continued down the highway at half the speed, but I was still shivering. To make matters worse, when I'd come around a curve the wind would hit full force, and that along with my loss of muscle control, speeding cars, and the absence of a guardrail had me wavering on the point of doom once or twice. I stopped more often and for longer periods to warm up, watching with envy as road cyclists flew down the mountain with their expensive, high tech foul weather gear. As I got lower it got a little warmer and the rain came down again. I donned my new rain poncho and mosied down the mountain,, no longer elated to be on the road.

By day's end the rain had diminished as I'd gotten farther from the pass, and I was resigned to finding another wilderness camping spot as my next host wasn't until Basel. This wouldn't have been a problem if I hadn't been so wet, but as it turned out I couldn't find anyplace discreet to camp, and I saw a campsite by the lake that Lucerne is situated on. Though it was 20 Swiss Francs for a place to put my little waterlogged tent, I could also get a hot shower, so I took it. I had my shower, dried out a bit, and enjoyed the scenery and absence of rain.
The campsite had several trekking cyclists in it, and having seen my 'Cycling to Syria' T-Shirts hanging out to dry, they were all very interested in my journey and incredulous that I was making it with such equipment. One of them, a Dutchman named Caspar, invited me for a drink. We had a good talk about bikes and routes and philosophy, and the next morning he treated me to breakfast and helped me out with a donation. When I hit the road again that morning, I felt rested and happy to have gained another friend. I was once again ready to roll.
For photos have a look at my Facebook page under 'Kenneth Lawrence Schroeder.'