Friday, October 20, 2017
On Tuesday the 17th of October I hit the road again. This time I had a couple days drive ahead of me... this was exacerbated by the fact that my bike's condition was rapidly deteriorating. I couldn't even go over 100 kph (about 60 mph) without the bike overheating. It was evening time as I pulled into my prospective camping spot which I thought looked pretty promising. It was a densely wooded area with no sign of human activity... until I spotted a man with a dog. Actually, he spotted me. I was stopped at a sign, which unfortunately was a warning about the only dangerous large animal in Germany - the wild Boar. This already had me thinking twice about this spot, but then I saw this guy staring at me. I would later come to understand that Germans often just stare a lot in general when they don't know you, or are trying to figure out if they do. With this guy it was only when I turned around that he went on his way. He clearly wanted to make sure I wasn't planning on sticking around. Well, it's one thing to freedom camp when nobody's looking, but he was probably going to dob me in, so I got back on the autobahn... for another two hours. By the time I got to my next spot, it was dark, and I was actually pretty close to my final destination - Dusseldorf. I was happy to finally arrive at what turned out to be a beautiful camping spot near Cologne.
The next day I had my morning muesli before packing it all in. The final stretch wasn't easy. The bike overheated every 10-20 minutes which meant that I had to stop and add water to my leaky radiator... this wasn't so bad until I hit traffic. After about 30 minutes overheating in traffic, I was sure that the bike would be permanently damaged. At the first exit I could find, I pulled off to find a place where I could check the bike. It was way overheated by the time I finally stopped but, after adding the water, I was happy to find that the bike started back up without much difficulty. A short while later I finally arrived at the meeting hall in Düsseldorf. I could finally breathe a sigh of relief... against all odds, I had actually made it!
I dropped off my stuff then went to a Korean restaurant with a family from the meeting hall. After lunch we went on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the city that lasted all afternoon. During the tour I learned a few things about Düsseldorf that I've often referred back to. They told us about the Oberkasseler bridge, which was built upstream before being brought into place using tracks - this was the first time such a feat of engineering had been attempted, and it was a complete success. Another interesting fact is that Düsseldorf has more parks than any other city in Germany. This makes me happy because I don't really care for cities in general, so the more nature the better. They also told us about the Altstadt or "Old City" (a historical part of town that lots of people, tourists and locals enjoy visiting), and a church with a crooked spire. The church of St Mary and All Saints has inspired some really strange myths with regard to its spire. The one they told us on the bus says that it twisted away from a marriage that was conducted under the false pretense that the bride was a virgin. According to the myth, the spire will only twist back when an actual virgin gets married in Düsseldorf... it's been about 600 years now.
That night I rode over to the nearby suburb of Kaarst to meet my couchsurfing hosts with whom I'd be staying for the week. Over the following days, I helped out with Bible distribution in the neighboring cities of Essen and Cologne a bit before starting my search for a job and a place to live.
Monday, October 16, 2017
Going from Switzerland to Germany is quite a transition. Switzerland is one of the more expensive countries in Europe while Germany is one of the more affordable when you exclude the southern and eastern blocks of Europe. The food and language in Germany are also somewhat different. They both like their cheese and bread but, of course, they also have their regional specialties for these things as well as food in general. They also both speak German but, again, they have regional differences. In fact, Germans tend to speak either Hochdeutsch or Plattdeutsch (mostly northerners) while the Swiss will often speak Swiss German, French or even Italian. They even have a small region where the fourth nationally recognized language - Romanian - is spoken. Overall, when we talk about Switzerland and Germany, we are talking about two very distinct cultures which, without much consideration, could be (mistakenly) seen to overlap in many if not all aspects.
In any case, I was happy to find that Stuttgart offered more than a few cultural enjoyments. On Thursday, the 12th of October, I arrived at the home of my couchsurfing friend Willy. I had requested hospitality with Willy a couple months before while I was still in the states. After that we had gotten to know each other a bit over social media, so it was cool to finally be meeting in person. Willy comes from Peru originally. This actually gave us a really nice common ground to meet on in that we both spoke Spanish. In fact, I find that most Spanish speakers are pretty happy to get to know you when they find out that you can speak their beautiful language. It makes sense actually - Spanish was designed to sound good, so naturally its native speakers are inclined to speak it!
Willy welcomed me by taking me to his favorite place in town... the sauna. For those who don't know, many German saunas have a very unusual characteristic - they don't allow clothing. Apparently it's more sanitary this way. Well, while I wasn't exactly comfortable with the idea, I really didn't feel like I had much of a choice. As local customs go, it seemed pretty harmless. I also believe in trying everything once, and have tried much more terrifying things over the years (notably Balut), so it would probably be somewhat hypocritical, not to mention a bit wimpy, if I were to draw the line at being naked.
Well, the sauna is actually quite pleasant once you get over the sight of wrinkly old fat people walking around everywhere. Which, of course, brings one to the realization that nobody in this place cares at all about seeing a little flesh. Not that I thought they would but, to those who think this encourages lust or something, think again. Not one of these people had any interest in looking at anyone else. In fact, I think the only thing to be worried about is being blinded!
After a few hours of sitting in rooms of temperatures varying from quite warm to scorching hot, we went back to Willy's to make Sopa Peruana (Peruvian soup) - a specialty of Willy's home country. I can honestly say that Peru is now on my list of places to visit. The food is really good! The next day we had Pollo Estufado Peruano (Peruvian stuffed chicken) which was also pretty tasty.
That evening another couchsurfer showed up. Willy mentioned that likes to have lots of people around. I assumed one or two but, a couple days later, yet another backpacker showed up. And, as I mentioned before, it should probably come as no surprise that they were also Spanish speakers. I mean, even when you put aside the beauty of the language, I think people generally like to hear their own language. As they say, when you speak to someone in a foreign language, you speak to their mind. But, when you speak to them in their own language, you speak to their soul. I guess that's why in English we say things like, "speak English!" (e.g., when someone talks about something in an over-complicated way), and, "now you're speaking my language!" (even though the language hasn't technically changed).
Over the next couple days, I attended a local church conference in which both English and German were spoken. I wanted to practice my German though, so I got a German outline and focused on the German translation. It was pretty good! I actually understood most things without having to listen for the English words. The message itself was on recovery, specifically the recovery of God's original desire for us both individually and corporately. I enjoyed that "we are what we are until we're not", which is basically to suggest that we should grow through our experience. This is very practical because sometimes we worry about our condition (spiritual or otherwise) as if it's permanent even though actually, if we're open to it, it's possible to overcome our natural disposition. We don't have to be limited by how we see ourselves or how we think other people see us or expect us to be.
For the last couple days in Stuttgart, I enjoyed a few more cultural delights. One was Brazilian chocolate brought by our third arrival, Victor. He prepared it by melting it down with some other ingredients to make a special dish... the name of which I don't remember. We also had some Peruvian salad as well as what is probably one of my favorite German dishes - Zwiebelkuchen (onion cake). Willy recommended it to me and, when I saw that it was only a euro, I gladly gave it a try. You might think that "onion cake" sounds a bit strange, but actually it's basically just a giant Swabian quiche. "Swabian" because, to my great disappointment, I later found out that it's really more of a southern German thing... I later found some in Dusseldorf, but it was six euros a slice! As I mentioned before, different regions of Germany and Switzerland have their own cultures. In the southwest in particular there's a region called Swabia where, from what I'm told, people are notoriously thrifty (according to stereotypes they're even a bit greedy). As a result, it seems there's a deal or two to be found in this region- namely, Zwiebelkuchen.
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
After three weeks of non-stop travel around Europe, it was nearly time to move on towards the goal - Germany. As much as I dream of a permanent life on the road (maybe in about four years we'll be there!), one unfortunately has to work for a living. And, on Monday, the 9th of October, that's exactly what we did.
Stefan is a hard-working guy. He spends a lot of time driving around meeting clients and doing odd jobs for them. Like me, he can pick up as much or as little work as he's in the mood to do. Another nice thing about his work is that he is able to help me pay for my visits. It seems that every time I go to visit, he's got another job with which I am able to help. During this particular visit, I raked in probably about as much as I had spent over the last couple weeks of travel. Not a bad arrangement! After a long day of moving furniture, we headed back to his town to have a very enjoyable dinner at the home of our friend Pascal.
The next day, I swapped out the battery on my motorbike with the one that I had bought in Spain. Then, after a quick oil change, the old thing started up as well as if I hadn't left it sitting in a shed for the last year! I was quite relieved because the last time I had ridden it, the old beast had just about every problem you can imagine. As a few mechanics had warned me, these problems were signals of the bike's imminent demise. Of course, I only required short-term functionality, so no worries!
After my great success with reviving the motorbike, we all had lunch at Stefan's outdoor lounge area overlooking his town, Brittnau. The following day, I packed up my gear in preparation for my ride up toward Stuttgart.
It was several hours, with the usual adventures (I always say "it's not an adventure until something goes wrong!"): a pump that stole my money, a wrong turn up a beautiful stretch of autobahn... one of my brakes failing. Well, as my dad likes to say, "one of two things will happen." In this case, I'll either make it or I won't. Thankfully, I made it to my first camping spot... I just had to convince a forest ranger that I was just lost (he then directed me back toward the autobahn) so that he wouldn't come looking for me. I then turned down another road where I could camp without being found. Of course, I had the hammock that Stefan gave me, so that would probably afford a bit of leeway with locals anyway. As I've previously noted, the simple and non-invasive design of a hammock seems to have a slightly better appeal in the eyes of the authorities in Europe. So far, so good!
Sunday, October 8, 2017
For our last drive through France, Stefan and I had spent probably a hundred euros and seen nothing. France - at least the South of France - is packed with toll roads. To get across the country without stopping in every little town, you have to pay a toll probably every hour, and this gets a bit pricey. In fact, if I didn't need to get my motorbike up to Switzerland, I would have considered this part of the trip a complete waste of money. You can literally fly for less than half the cost of taking French toll roads... that's not even taking into account the cost of fuel. But I digress.
Before the start of our French excursion, we still had to finish our drive up the Spanish coast and pass through Andorra. On Thursday, October 5th, we started the day by visiting a walled pueblo called Morella. Morella was another place on my list that I had neglected to visit during my big trip around Spain - primarily because it was taking a lot longer on the motorbike than I had expected. Well, I'm glad we finally managed to see it. With it's elevation, the walled city of Morella boasts some pretty cool views. It also has some rather impressive historical structures, including a huge castle up at the top of the crazy hill that Morella sits on.
Later in the afternoon, after we had had a good look around, we visited yet another place that I had not been able to fit into my previous itinerary - the Fontcalda hot springs. I have to say that one of the most interesting things about this spring, as well as the one in Montanejos, is getting there. Not unlike Montanejos, the Fontcalda hot springs are located in the middle of nowhere - tucked away in the mountains. The difference with Fontcalda is that the winding mountain roads lead to a rapid descent with switchbacks that'll make your head spin. This, of course, was no problem for our Swiss driver who has experience with roads in his homeland that are easily much more challenging. As we continued down, switchback after switchback, we eventually found ourselves at the bottom of a hidden valley at the front door of a pretty nice little sanctuary.
Yet again, we found that the water was more refreshing than "hot", but it was a nice day so we didn't mind! After exploring a cool path along the river that was carved into the cliffs, we made our way back up out of the valley and rode the mountain bikes down the other side. Finally, we drove for a few more hours until we reached the Piernes. We then camped at the top of a mountain near the border before continuing into Andorra the following day.
We didn't spend long in Andorra. After having a picnic in the beautiful Andorran hills, we rode the bikes back into one of the villages. We later stopped at the ski resort Pas de la Casa, which looked a bit different than it did during my last visit during the ski season, then continued our journey to our next stop - a small town in France called Foix.
Foix was a recommendation from our friend Patrick. The pretty little town was well worth the visit; the castle in particular was pretty awe-inspiring. After our short visit there, we moved on to the infamous Carcassonne!
The castle is seriously fortified with two massive outer walls and 53 towers. The quintessential castle of any fairy tale, this fortified city is a pretty neat place to walk around. The upkeep alone has got to cost an absolute fortune! We stayed there until after dark then went out on our hunt for the nearest camping spot we could find. This actually seemed to be the case most nights seeing as Stefan didn't seem to mind looking around in the dark. Personally, I generally like to look for my camping spots in the daylight. For one thing, this makes it easier to see the places that are a bit farther off the road. It also helps in revealing just how visible the spot will be in the morning. You see, if the spot is hidden well enough, you don't have to worry so much about being spotted when the sun comes up!
After a night of being spooked by foxes, we continued our drive through small town after small town. At one point we found ourselves on a crazy mountain road called Sant Jean du Gard which eventually led us to a commune called Alès. It was there that we dropped Patrick off with some farmers who he had often worked for in exchange for room and board. Finally, we camped out near Fontaine Petrifiante De Reotier, a so-called hot pool which, as we realized the next morning, was only really good for looking at.
Still, determined to find some decent hot pools before finishing our journey back to Switzerland, we went to La Source de Phazy, a nearby pool that just so happened to be the best one yet! Okay, it wasn't exactly boiling, but the water was warm and, at this point, we really just needed a bath.
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
After a couple days sitting in a hostel in Madrid, I was happy when my good friend Stefan arrived to pick me up. He had picked me up in Spain before for a similar trip (if you don't count the detour down to Morocco). One big difference this time was that we had a bit more time to stop and see the sights.
Stefan had come prepared with the perfect European camping device - the hammock. I've read several forums on the subject of "wild" camping in Europe; many of which do not cast a positive light on the subject. It seems that the Europeans don't take too kindly to people going off the beaten path in order to get away from it all... AKA actual camping. No, the European way is to spend 30 bucks on a small section of someone else's backyard in the middle of about a hundred other "campers". Yeah, thanks, but no thanks. Unfortunately for people like myself, the laws tend to reflect the attitude that Europeans have toward "wild" camping. So, the only way to get away with the dastardly deed of roughing it in the woods for a night or two, is to be aware of what in particular the local authorities are most concerned about.
It's not really so much that they hate people setting up camp in their beloved forests (though I'm sure some would find a reason to get upset about that, e.g., it's not safe, it doesn't belong to you, etc.) but, rather, it's the fact that campers haven't always shown the most respect while doing so. Some campers litter, others try to set up more permanent dwellings for long-term habitation, and still others just don't have the sense to stay out of the public eye. With these things in mind, it's really not that hard to come up with a few strategies for keeping everyone happy... more or less. First of all, don't camp in places where you're likely to be found! That should be obvious, as should not littering. As the old saying goes, "take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints."
The last thing to consider, especially if you're not really that far from civilization (a likely scenario in the relatively crowded landscape of Europe), is keeping a low profile. This is why the hammocks were so useful. Setting up a tent not only draws more attention, but a tent also looks more "permanent". That's why one of the few pieces of actually useful advice that I was able to find regarding wild camping in Europe that one take a tarp, lay down, and cover up with it! Well, I'm not above doing that, but hammocks are a bit more comfortable and are just about as likely to be perceived as a temporary sleeping situation. In any case, I use google maps to find places that are generally tucked away enough that I don't have to worry about being stumbled upon by some hiker or forest ranger.
On Tuesday, the 3rd of October, Stefan showed up with his friend Patrick and we set off from my hostel for our first stop - La Pedriza. La Pedriza has been on my list of places to see for a while. I spent a whole year living in Spain, even drove around most of the country, but never got around to seeing it. Well, since we had a few days, we made a slight detour to a "campsite" nearby so we could get an early start on our hike the next morning. Okay, so we broke the first rule of wild camping - we camped in a public place. But, we made it work by getting there after dark, and leaving before the first joggers showed up. Spain has a lot of areas where there's really no place to hide, so sometimes you just gotta make do.
After hiking La Pedriza, with all of it's boulders and beautiful views, we rode back down on the mountain bikes with our friend Patrick following us in the van. We then drove to Guadalajara for lunch, and continued to the small mountain pueblo of Montanejos for another shot at the hot pools there. I had been there before during my trip around Spain with Preston, but I hadn't gone in because it just didn't seem worth it at the time... winter was only just coming to an end. Following our refreshing dip, and a nice dinner at a local restaurant, we decided not to stay at my tried and trusted camping spot there in the hills. Instead, we pushed on for a couple more hours toward our next destination: Morella. We ended up camping on a random mountain road up in the clouds which, yet again, turned out to be a rule breaker... we would wake up the next morning to the sound of the owner of the house just up around the bend driving down and stopping at our "campsite". Fortunately, he didn't seem to have much to say - probably saw the Swiss plates and put two and two together. In any case, I had chosen this place based on its remoteness (google maps is clutch), so chances are they don't get a lot of unwanted visitors hanging out on their premises.
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
When it comes to travel, momentum tends to be a decisive factor. Though, it doesn't always seem like it when you're on the road. In fact, it's easy to get tired and start looking for excuses to drag your feet. Nevertheless, momentum comes into play when you consider three things: one-way trips are cheaper than round-trip tickets, you don't have to worry about paying rent in one place once you've moved to another and, because you don't have anything keeping you in one spot, it's easy to just keep moving! Once you have a job, and finally find a place to rent, it's hard to imagine spending more than a few days on the road. This leads us to a sort of contradiction: while you're traveling, work, and the security that comes with it, sounds pretty good. But, after you start working, it doesn't take long to realize that having a job doesn't leave much room for travel!
Nevertheless, there is a way to balance the equation - do as much travel as possible before and after starting work. After my visit to England I continued my whirlwind tour of Europe. On Sunday, the 24th of September, I landed in Madrid and picked up my rental car. After just catching the church meeting, I went to a Chinese buffet with some of the brothers that I hadn't seen since a year before. I then grabbed a sim card and went to the weekly couchsurfing meeting. Finally, after making some new friends, I made my way to a hostel for my first night back in Spain.
The next morning I picked up a motorcycle helmet and battery for my bike up in Switzerland (cheaper to buy in Spain) before heading down to my old stomping grounds in Castilla-La Mancha. There I saw my former colleague Cristina after paying a visit to my mechanic friend Luis. Cristina and I went to the local cafe to catch up - she had actually moved to another pueblo, but we met there in beautiful Belmonte for old-times' sake. That evening I found my way back to Julio's in Pedro Muñoz then joined him and the others for a walk.
Over the next four days I went back to Las Mesas as a guest teacher, visited with more colleagues, met with my former employer from the academy in Las Pedroñeras, and joined Maria Jose and her family for a basement fireplace barbecue similar to the one I had been to with Luis and the guys at the racing circuit the year before.
The next weekend, Julio took me to Tomelloso to see the Museo del carro y aperos de labranza. We saw a lot of cool historical farming artifacts as well as a old-timey dwelling called a Bombo. A Bombo is a traditional structure specially designed to house shepherds and farmers, along with their farm animals and their farming tools - no joke, they slept alongside the smelly animals! This old-school barn was reconstructed with more than two million stones, cleverly arranged one above the other without any mortar between them.
The next day I drove back to Madrid to return my rental, then spent the next two days hanging out at the hostel waiting for Stefan to arrive for another trip up through France and back to Switzerland. Thankfully, this time we would not be doing it in a 41-hour straight shot!