The Therapy of Bike Touring

[caption id=”attachment_1845” align=”aligncenter” width=”1000” caption=”Trying to weld Morgan’s broken rack. It didn’t work.”][/caption]

I could hear the truck behind me slowing down so it could pull up alongside me. I was riding my bicycle down the narrow highway from Mestia — a town perched high up in the Georgian mountains. As the sounds of high-pitched, squealing brakes drew closer and closer, I knew what was going to happen. The truck driver wanted to talk to me.

It happens frequently in places where cycle tourists are a rare sight. Drivers will slow down, roll down their windows, and shout some words of mockery, amusement, or encouragement in a foreign language before speeding off. It can actually get quite annoying. The problem is that, as an English-speaker, you’re never sure what’s being said. So I instinctively braced myself for the familiar, confusing interaction.

“Problem, Problem!” the driver shouted to me in a thick, Georgian accent. He was trying to help me.

The driver gestured backwards with his thumb, and I turned around to see that Morgan was nowhere in sight. Normally we ride within 100 feet of each other. So yes — there was clearly a problem.

After circling back a couple kilometers, I found my cycling partner sitting by the side of the road, looking upset and frustrated. I glanced over to his bicycle, where it wasn’t difficult to identify the source of his “problem.” Morgan’s front rack had snapped completely in two — the supporting bar bent, and hanging loosely.

This was not good. Not good at all.

I knew right away there was no fixing the issue. We had to find Morgan a new bike rack. The Tubus racks we use are made with hardened steel, which means they can’t be easily welded (we tried, see picture above), nor simply tied together. It’s a specialized item, and there would be no way to get a replacement short of shipping one in from Europe or the States. It would be an expensive problem, and it would be a hassle.

Morgan angrily flung the useless piece of equipment down into a gulley. I watched, but didn’t say anything. I knew that these sorts of mechanical issues are to be expected during long-term cycle touring, but I couldn’t help but feel similarly. The accident came at a bad time.

In sum: we had already lost our omni-tool the night before – the one piece of equipment we use to make all major hardware tweaks and adjustments on our bikes. We had just finished a week-long stint in the mountains, covering a feature story about rock climbers, from which we were mentally and physically exhausted. And we were spending the next two days cycling roads we had already traveled on, meaning we would be three-quarters to Tbilisi before we saw any new scenery.

The broken bike rack was icing on the cake.

Dejectedly, Morgan and I walked over to sit in the nearby shade of a half-constructed, half-forgotten building. We pulled out our ham and cheese sandwiches, and nibbled at them in silence. I soon began to feel overwhelmed.

Such are the moments — when one problem seems to compound upon another — when the enormity of the trip hits me. I get stressed. I begin to draw a mental map of the world, imagining all those miles we still have to go, stretched out in interminable lines across mountains and deserts and jungles. So many miles…and yet we’re still only a third of the way through. It makes me feel tired. Shanghai seems like an impossibly distant destination.

Of course the reality is, when you’re stuck on the side of the road, in the middle of the Georgian mountains, you have no real choice but to soldier onward. Eventually we stirred from our brooding, and Morgan discovered that between the two of us, we could still carry the baggage from his front panniers. So we loaded up his gear and, with little enthusiasm, decided to continue along our way. After all, we were still trying to make an additional 70 km that day. I was not looking forward to it.

We rolled our bikes back onto the highway, and set off slowly. I immediately felt the unwillingness of my legs. But with each passing kilometer, Morgan and I gradually built up speed. Our bodies were drifting into their natural cadence — a sort of autopilot mode where hands can shift gears without thought, and legs automatically adjust their strain to the undulating grades of the hills. My mind, which was racing with foreboding thoughts when we started, began to dull with the repetitive motions of cycling. I felt my nerves calm, and the white reflectors of the road whizzed past with ease. By the time Morgan and I reached the extra 70 kilometers, I felt completely relaxed.

Having finished the ride, we returned from our bicycle-induced reveries to find a camp site for the evening, and cooked a steaming pot of pasta marinara. It wasn’t long before we returned to the discussion about fixing the broken bicycle rack. Except this time, it didn’t seem so bad. I no longer felt overwhelmed or defeated, but confident and self-assured.

The difference was in the bike ride.

There is a certain therapy in bicycle touring that I’ve come to rely on. The mindless hours on the road are not a waste. Instead, they offer a momentary yet necessary sanctuary from the innumerable stresses and problems that Morgan and I constantly deal with – the trip logistics, the writing deadlines, the frustrations pursuing stories, etc. Cycling is our chance to reboot, to see things more clearly, and incentivizes us to work harder in the shorter windows of time given to us.

It’s also what gives us some personal space; even though we ride together, bike touring is a predominantly solitary experience. Morgan and I spend 24/7 together, but when we’re cycling we interact very little with each other. It actually gives us some much needed alone time. Otherwise, we would always be caught up in each other’s stress. The bike touring is what gives us some room for perspective.

It’s a good thing, too. There will be so many problems that we’ll face over the next year or so. And it’s nice to know that we have an outlet to decompress from it all — to refresh and come back to the drawing board with renewed energy. We’ll need it.

Over our spaghetti dinner in the campsite, Morgan and I drew out a plan to have a new Tubus rack shipped to Mumbai, where we could pick it up in a Fed-ex store upon our arrival.

The plan worked out fine. We picked up the new rack two days ago.

A Statement of Our Goals

One of the supporters of this trip expressed concern that Chris and I might be losing focus on our Journey.  I understand where they were coming from, our vision and our tactics have shifted a lot since the beginning of this trip.  To clarify any points of confusions about what our goals are, I’ve put up (an edited version of) my response letter to the supporter.  Even if you didn’t give us any money, I think you’ll enjoy it.

——————————

I understand where you’re coming from when you expressed your concern that the trip is losing focus.  I have, perhaps, not done as good a job of explaining what we’re after right now as I should have.    I hope to fix that by the end of this letter.
I think you understand that the goal of this journey has always been to tell stories.  Chris and I share a passion for them—their construction, rhetoric, and power to create real change.  What I presented to you before embarking—the project to do in-depth reporting on a few emerging entrepreneurs— was the best manifestation of that that I could think of, the best project I knew how to complete that would allow me to tell great stories.

I’ve learned a lot since then, more than I could summarize in this small letter.  One of the things we learned is that that project wouldn’t work.  Entrepreneurs as individuals are generally not interesting enough to merit the amount of time that we had planned to invest in each one.   Those thought leaders that do merit that kind of research and biographical work are already titans in their industry, and we’d be lucky if they gave us a half hour interview.  So, we were left in a conundrum: no access to the people with names worth doing a piece about, and no real market to read long works on individual entrepreneurs that haven’t already made a massive impact.
So Chris and I took a step back, examined where we were coming from, and then set off in a new direction.  The direction that made sense was to begin working as freelance journalists, which would allow us to experiment with telling all different kinds of stories until we got damn good at it, and understood their essence.  Nevertheless, we didn’t abandon the original idea.

 You’ll note that our new Forbes blog, “Freewheelers” is about entrepreneurs in a format that we think will work: short pieces about quirky but ingenious businesses. (The tag line ie “the strangest ways to make a living.”)    While we’ve only put out three pieces so far, we’ve seen some success, and gotten a lot of encouragement from an excited Forbes editorial staff.  We’re also excited about the column; it will not only be fun to read, but may do much to propel our young careers, and we love meeting and writing about the people featured.
Outside of that column, Chris and I have been working on putting together feature stories.  These are 4000 word pieces that take two-three weeks for us to put together. They drill deep into small stories, and represent our commitment to the in-depth journalism that we heralded at the Explorer’s Club.   They are about underworlds, as Chris and I like to call them.

Underworlds are small groups of people that are undertaking difficult, curious, or community-changing projects that fall well outside the day-to-day life of most people.   Our goal is to make you look at these groups and go “wow!  I can’t believe people actually do that!” and hopefully give the readers some takeaways about the ingenuity of the groups, or at least inspire the reader to take a step further into the unknown.  It’s an admittedly vague definition, best explained by example: a group of environmental activists that are blocking the passage of a new coal plant by guarding the entrance 24 hours a day, and inciting riots everytime the machines come to build; a group of climbers trying to tackle one of the most dangerous climbs in Europe; a community in Vienna that gets their food by dumpster diving because they think it’s more environmentally friendly.
It’s the same in-depth journalism we were planning to apply entrepreneurs, now applied to more complex, and more interesting, small communities.

The stories, as we write them now, try to be amusing and fascinating.  Most of them succeed at least in part, although some do not.  The truth is that we are at the beginning of a very long road in understanding what is at the core of a good story.  We all know the concepts behind one: interesting conflict, hopefully on protagonist vs. herself and protagonist vs. bad guy levels, adventure, good character development and –this is the hardest one—relatability.  Mixing together all those elements is an immensely difficult task even when you can make everything up.  It is at least equally hard when you have to find them all in the real world, get access to them from people who don’t know you, and then synthesize all the research and interviews into a coherent piece while filtering for bullshit.
The art only seems to get more complex as we delve deeper into it.  So far, I can say we just got past white belt.  We now better understand how to find the stories, which characters we need to get to know, and how to extract some of the information we need.  Even in these fields, we have an endless amount to learn.  But what Chris and I really have not grasped yet is how to make a story relatable.  They don’t leave the reader in awe, they don’t give the reader a sense that they need to jump out of their chair—right now!—to act on what they learned in the story.   That only happens when the author masters relatability.

Relability itself comes from two sources (there may be others).  One is that man vs. self conflict is integrated within the more adventurous man vs. bad guy conflict.  Man vs. self only has so many interations, and if the author is honest is describing them, (or if we’re talking journalism, if the reporter was able to get the interviewee to open up), then any reader will be able to associate with the emotions presented.   The other way to do it is to use the story to present some great insight or simple but powerful concept, the way that Malcolm Gladwell does it.  Then the story is relatable because you understand how the concept can impact your life. There may be other ways of doing it too, one’s that I haven’t yet discovered.
So, in a word, that’s what we’re really after.  The one Great Story, powered by relatability.  The one that is full of adventure and meaningful conflict, but also relevant to what’s happening around you in the world, and will leave the reader with a fascinating new insight.  The Great Story will be about the creation of something you understand and care about, but the creation will happen in a fascinating and foreign underworld that you never knew existed.  Reading the Great Story will leave you with a tidbit of knowledge you can really use.

The journey to find that story, and understand it’s composure, will be what the book is about when it is written.
I dare say that this goal is perhaps more nebulous, and less easy to sell, than a journey to go find great entrepreneurs.  If you want something sexier, that we can say that this journey is still about fining entrepreneurs and the wild communities they create—that remains the vehicle to our larger goal.  But what we’re after is much more meaningful, profound, and ambitious than that.  I hope that you see that with me, and that, as a fellow writer, you will enjoy watching the process of us stepping ever closer to this goal, even if we never quite arrive at The Story.
Postulate One By the Numbers

The bikes are boxed, the panniers packed. In just 24 hours, Postulate One is headed to India!

It’s a big moment for us. We’re officially one third of the way through this grand undertaking, and tomorrow’s plane hop across the cultural spectrum to a teeming subcontinent, and the Southeast Asian adventures beyond, will take us into phase two. We’re stoked, if not a little nervous.

But before we touch down in Mumbai, we thought we’d share some scientifically-proven stats of our journey with the readers. It’s a fun reminder of how far we’ve already come.

Postulate One by the Numbers

  • Days on the road: 166
  • Miles completed: 3,100
  • Countries cycled through: 11
  • Articles Published: 3
  • Bicycle Crashes: 5
  • Tubes popped: 10
  • Nights camped in the rain: 9
  • Average days between Showers: 5
  • Average days between Laundry: 14
  • Times we’ve gotten sick: 3
  • Number of good sources we couldn’t speak to b/c of a language barrier: at least 10
  • Peanut butter jars we’ve found in foreign supermarkets: 8
  • Times we’ve couchsurfed: 31
  • Times we’ve been hosted by complete strangers: 5
  • Times we’re honked at per day: 15
  • How often we’re asked where we’re from: about every 20 minutes
  • Hours spent figuring out where we are: too many
  • Hours spent daydreaming about where we’re going: countless
The Story Behind the Story We Found in Georgia

[caption id=”attachment_1834” align=”alignleft” width=”1000” caption=”Chris with Russian climbers in front of Mt. Ushba”][/caption]

We entered Georgia with empty heads.  It is safe to say that we knew almost nothing about the country we were about to cross, and less about the culture of its people. From this base of knowledge, we had three weeks (about half of which would be spent cycling) to find and write a feature story.

We had two halfway developed ideas about where we might find one. We knew that Georgians were good at wrestling, and a story about the machine behind its Olympic powerhouse team could be a hit.  And we knew that there were tall mountains, which meant mountaineers, crazy bastards that were trying things worthy of telling, or at least giving rescue teams the opportunity to do so.

Having just spent more time than we wanted to in Istanbul, we decided against traveling to the capital Tbilisi immediately, and instead headed for the town of Mestia, deep in the Georgian mountains. This was the place from which expeditions (and their rescues) were launched, and we figured there might be something here. The wrestling team in Tbilisi seemed like the safer bet, but the joy of not being paid anything is that you can take risks to go wherever you please.

So, thighs burning, we went to great heights to find a scoop.

48 hours after arrival, we thought we were screwed.

Morgan got so sick that he spent the first day in his hostel bunk, almost unable to move. Chris had been able to secure an interview with the head of the search and rescue team the first day, but was stood up. Still, we were excited by what the tourist office told us, that there was a 15 man team, and they were quite active in the area. This could be exactly what we were looking for. But then the next day we were disappointed to learn there actually wasn’t much of a story. The team was only 5 members, six months old, and the head that we were meeting got a call about a missing climber on Mount Ushba before our interview even started.  We had only fifteen minutes with him, but it was enough to discern that he wasn’t tripping over himself to talk to journalists.

The biggest problem was not that the rescue team didn’t want us around.  It was that they didn’t get what we after, and the language barrier prevented us from explaining it.  If there was a story to write about them, the angle would probably be something along the lines of “What it’s like to rescue climbers in the far reaches of the Caucus Mountains?” But chances are few that any of them had read a lot of feature journalism stories before - they couldn’t see how a human interest story about what it was like to be part of a Georgian rescue team could be interesting, indeed couldn’t even imagine how such a piece would take shape. If they had talked to reporters at all, it was simple and factual: this guy died at this time, or this guy almost died and then we rescued him. They didn’t see why we needed to get close enough to give colorful accounts of their personalities, their community, and their challenges. And because of the language barrier, it was difficult to become their friend. A lot gets lost in translation. We decided we weren’t going to get close enough to get a good story, or to watch them rescue the Armenian. After three days cycling to Mestia, our biggest story lead was a dead end. It was a frustrating return back to the drawing board. The other story idea we had about the Georgian wrestlers in Tbilisi was looking better and better. But now Tbilisi was 5 days away. Whether we liked it or not, we were committed to a story in Mestia.

We continued combing the streets for a scoop. Any scoop. And after a while, we decided to do some additional research on the only computer in town, in the front of a mini market. Of course, right when we arrived, the power went out, so we waited for the grid to go back online by striking up a conversation with a couple of polish climbers who had just returned from Mt. Ushba. Ushba — it was the second time we had heard about the mountain that day, after the rescue team had been called there.

We found out that Ushba was the trophy of the range for mountaineers. Apparently, some routes are so difficult that even the most experienced were fearful, and many that tried them died. We also go word, though the Poles, that a Russian expedition might still be climbing, and they might be doing something nuts. Maybe.

This was all juicy stuff, fraught with danger, and we thought a story about a particular route that was considered extremely difficult could be good, as long as we got somebody actually trying to do it. We decided to head to Ushba to see, essentially, if we could get lucky and find that story. We were pretty desperate at this point.

But it took us two days to get to basecamp, and luck did not seem to be on our side. Morgan waited two hours for a woman who was going to rent us trekking backpacks, and she came back with daypacks that could barely have been trusted with schoolbooks. We put all our stuff in a few bike panniers instead. Two more fruitless hours were passed on the side of the road with our thumbs out, with drivers stopping only to demand exorbitant prices for a ride to Ushba’s trailhead. We finally ended up having to split a cab with a few Czech hikers, which was still cheaper than what the drivers were asking.

Once we finally got to Mazeri, we went the wrong way. We spent the night cowering in our tent under a heavy thunderstorm, and then proceeded up the wrong trail. What we ended up in was essentially a flood wash, which we climbed through with the heavy bicycle panniers on our shoulders. It sucked, and ended up being a five hour detour from the actual hike, which really started back in the village, before even our campsite. It was, perhaps, one of the most dispiriting days we have had on this trip.  We were tired and sore, and had no idea whether or not any of this was leading to an actual story.

We finally reached the climbing camp at noon the next day, after yet another night of rainy weather down in the valley. The first person we see in the camp is George – one of the rescue team’s members — who is calling in a helicopter on its second attempt to rescue the Armenian. This is the same Armenian we had originally heard the call for back in Mestia. It turns out he’d been stuck up there for three days. Meanwhile the Russian climbers have abandoned their climb because of the bad weather. The best of them are climbing up an avalanche-prone shoot to see if they can rescue the Armenian, who is only 150 meters below the summit. Not to mention there has also been another death on the mountain, and the body is to be airlifted out that afternoon.

How dramatic! A dead climber, a stranded Armenian, and 16 Russians risking their lives to rescue him. We couldn’t believe how lucky we got. The story seemed to pop up out of nowhere.

We spent the next two days at the basecamp, speaking to those who would talk to us, trying to get updates about what was going on. It was our first experience with beat journalism. Lots of waiting, lots of nothing, and then… something. The whole time we’re trying to draw the story out of George and Constantine, a Russian climber who spoke English.

It was painful work, because every detail had to be almost forcefully extracted, and every question got them a little bit more annoyed. For example, when Chris tried to figure out what happened on the mountain during the storm, the interview went something like this:

“What was the storm on the mountain like?”

“What do you think? It was a storm.”

“Okay, how heavily was it snowing?”

“There was a lot of snow.”

“Were you snowed in?”

“Yes.”

Onwards the game of twenty questions dragged, so that a ten minute interview would provide us with barely enough detail to write an account of the storm. It took that much time to figure out that they had actually been huddling on the mountain for warmth, stuck in their half-buried tents for three days.

It was mid-afternoon on the third day when we finally got what we needed. We’d each read through half a novel by that point, just to pass time sitting on the mountain. But then these climbers start to come down in groups of four and five, and among them is a Polish guy named Mike, and his girlfriend.  We tell Mike that we’re journalists, and he lights up and just starts talking.

We want to get on our knees and whisper a prayer of thanks, because this guy is like a quote machine — just spitting stuff out, and Chris is tripping over himself to grab his notebook so that he can write it all down. Morgan asks him about a bunch of points we’re not clear on, and he consults with the Russians. Translator and source, you can’t ask for a better find.

Then, to top it all off, one of the climbers signals that he sees the Armenian coming down the mountain. The Armenian — this is it! The ongoing rescue saga, finally coming to an end.

When the Armenian got to camp, everybody quickly crowded around him, and we jostled our own way to the front to pop a few questions off, a little too fast. The Armenian has got so much going on that he backs up a little bit. Morgan signals a retreat from the group to powwow. This interview was crucial. We needed to have our aims and strategy set. No stepping over each other’s toes on this one. Plus, we need to be ethical about it — this guy almost died.

Just when we’re debating a strategy to kindly corner him to extract some tidbits, he invites us over to share the cheese and ham that is getting fed to him off the knife points by the other climbers.  We talk for a half hour, and he ends up volunteering the full story. From the size of the ledge he built (two meters by fifty cm), to what he was thinking coming down the mountain, to how he powered his cell phone for three days (with a hand crank).

Just before we leave, Morgan shoots off one more question.

“Are you going to try to climb the mountain again?”

The Armenian looks at us and smiles. “I’m going to climb both the North and South peaks”

Morgan is biting his lip, because he knows we’ve got what we need, and this guy handed us the clincher on a golden platter. The punch quote to close the article. We would have hugged him, but never in his life would he have understood why, and he probably wouldn’t have answered our follow up emails.

We had smiles on our faces as we trudged down the steep trail back to the valley, even though it had become a slip and slide from the rain. We’d taken a risk, and gotten our story. But we also knew that we’d been unreasonably lucky. We could’ve climbed up to Ushba and found nothing going on, and then we would have been left without enough time to find a different feature story before leaving Georgia. It all could have come to nothing, and so we realize we can’t credit ourselves too much with this one.

In India, we’ve decided we’re going to try a different approach: start interviewing people about a broad issue, and then let the individual stories emerge out of the interviews. But at least this time, scrounging for scoops in the mountains of Georgia was one hell of a fun ride.

[gallery]

We’ve been Published!

Exciting news, we’ve been picked up by a couple publications!

Enjoy the reads.

Couchsurfing is Over

A funny thing happened when we left Istanbul—our days of couchsurfing pretty much ended. We might be able to find something in Tblisi, and it might pick up in South East Asia, but it won’t be dependable.

From Paris to Istanbul, the website was our lifeblood. We surfed with at least 30 different hosts, sometimes over multiple nights. They were goldmines. They spoke English, provided amazing insight to local culture, and gave us comfortable places to stay. They also turned out to be some of our best sources for some of the stories that we wrote.

Now that it’s gone, the logistics of this trip just became more difficult. Opportunities for showers and wifi will be fewer and farer between, and we’ll have to shell out money for a hostel bed more often.

For the most part, it means that we’re back to mostly living out of our tent, scraping free accommodations whenever we’re lucky enough to find them. This has already changed the tone of our trip; I’ve left the reader with a few anecdotes to show how.

We needed a roof badly our first night leaving Trabzon. Chris and I had been on the road for just under
three hours, and we turned off with sixty minutes to go until sunset. That’s cutting it close by any
measure, especially when you’re on a major highway and have to find a place to sleep before dark. A dirt road through a small town seemed to be our best bet for finding a camping spot, and we attacked it hoping we could find a flat patch of grass in between the vast expanses of tea fields that covered the mountains. But these mountains were steep, and flat land was in short supply. Our first attempt got us chased off a field by a grumpy matron with a bundle of tea on her back. Our next try, 50 meters up the road, put us in a mud pit. Then it started to rain, and we doubled back and sprinted while the ground was still solid enough to wheel our bikes through, even if we were scraping gobs of mud out of our fenders to keep them pushing forward. It was time to resort to plan B.

Plan B was simple: ask whoever was in the street if we could sleep in their house. But there was a problem: nobody in town spoke a word of English or French, so all they did was point us in the direction of a city 20 km to the East, shouting “hotel!” It was pretty much a hopeless cause. Defeated, we ended up camping right next to the highway, hidden from the cars by a large mound of dirt that essentially
became a mud swamp. A less than awesome first night back on the bikes.

Three days later, in the city of Kutaisi, Georgia, we finally got a windfall in the form of a Peace Core volunteer from Chicago named Jon. We met Jon at an ice cream parlor in the city’s central park. After a brief conversation, he offered us his place to lay down for the night. It wasn’t really his, per se, but a small guest room in the house of his Georgian host family.

Jon was kind and quirky. It seemed as if he’d been alone for so long he’d forgotten how to deal with guests. When we asked where should go dinner, we received a twenty minute answer that included a description of everything we would find on the menu, a request for our precise time of return, and a question about whether we’d shower tonight or tomorrow morning. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all.

Dinner took us longer than expected, because we wanted to watch the Olympics on the restaurant’s TV, but when we came back we chatted for an hour. It was a great conversation; we learned about him, his family, what it was like to grow up with eight siblings. We got to use his computer, which had an internet connection, and figure out what we were going to do next in the country. But then, since he had only one room, he asked if we wouldn’t mind sleeping outside.

Chris and I didn’t skip a beat. We said “sure, no problem!” But we still ended up back in our tent, on Jon’s roof, using the rainfly for protection from the light rain. Yup, couchsurfing is over.

Going forward, I can only imagine that this new pace of life will take even stranger turns. Sometimes we’ll luck out and find shelter. Sometimes we’ll be out in our tent. Even if we do find a free roof, sometimes it will be great, and sometimes it will get just plain weird. Whatever it is, the disappearance of courchsurfing resets the equation of how we operate. It’s turning this into way more of an adventure than I’d imagined.

Fighting for our Istanbul Apartment Deposit

Among our last orders of business before leaving Istanbul was collecting the deposit on our apartment. After a month exploring the city, the deposit was the only tie keeping us there. After that, we had a bus to catch — to Trabzon, where we finished cycling in late June and would pick up the bike touring again into the Republic of Georgia.

“Whatever happens, let’s agree not to hand over the keys without the full deposit,” Morgan pointed out. I nodded in agreement, not really thinking there would be a problem, but still — you never know.

We arrived at the apartment to make the exchange, and we found the door to our flat wide open. The property owner was already there, inspecting the kitchen to make sure no dishes were missing in the cabinets. He is deaf, so we made hand gestures to show him that everything was in proper order. He seemed satisfied — we had cleaned the place top to bottom that morning. I thought it looked better than when we first moved in.

Then the owner mimed the dangling of keys – intimating that we should hand them over. I looked over to Morgan uneasily; we hadn’t received our deposit back yet. Should we give him the keys, with no money in our hands? A moment’s hesitation, and then we handed them over. We didn’t want to start a confrontation. Besides, the owner’s English-speaking assistant —Gaye — was to arrive in a few short minutes. She would handle the money transaction.

“This place is a complete mess!” Gaye exclaimed after a cursory look through the flat. “I’m sorry, but I need to deduct 100 liras of the deposit for a cleaning crew.”

I couldn’t believe it. Angrily, I challenged her to show us how, exactly, the apartment was dirty. She scoured the floor we had cleaned for some evidence, and finally came upon a single sesame seed. “There!” she exclaimed. “There, look at this!”

A sesame seed.

I told her how ridiculous she sounded, although I knew that we were stuck in an underhanded position. “Why - why did we give him the keys?” I thought. In doing so, we handed over our only real bargaining chip. Forget about any legally-binding lease agreement to back us up. This was Turkey.

At this point, the situation could have gone many different ways. I do know, however, how things would have progressed had the situation arisen just a few months ago. We would’ve taken the hit. We would’ve hung our heads, absorbed the losses (around 75 dollars), and meekly resolved not to let it happen again.

Instead, we left with our money – all of it. We became ruthless, to the point of being downright nasty. We staged a living room sit-in, and after we learned that the apartment was to be shown to some potential tenants in an hour, we threatened to tell them about the deposit scam. We told our landlord nobody was moving in tonight until we got our full deposit. Gaye was stunned. I don’t think that she was used to this kind of outright confrontation.

The standoff lasted about 45 minutes during which time we calmly occupied the living room armchairs. Finally, they offered us 950 lira. We laughed. Finally, they handed over the last 100 lira note, and we smiled, said thanks and calmly took our affairs down the stairs.

I wouldn’t venture to call the ordeal fun, or even gratifying, but what did surprise me was how calm and confident I felt during the stand-off.

Since beginning this trip, I have learned to become more comfortable within conflict – of holding my own during tense situations. This isn’t a practice in recklessness, or a seeking out of fruitless confrontations, but rather knowing when not to be the push-over tourist and reporter. It’s about knowing when to ask the uncomfortable questions, and how to think clearly when things don’t appear to be going our way. That is what allowed Morgan and me to get our full deposit back.

I think I’ll tip my hat to the stressful environments of Romania for that one.

My New Bike, My New Friend


Chris and I have to love our bikes. They are more than our means of transport, the vehicles of this absurdly long journey. They define our way of life. Loving our bikes means loving what we do; it means solace during the 6th hour on the saddle when I wonder what the hell I’m doing in the place I never thought I’d be.

But I did not love the bike that took me from Paris to Eastern Turkey. It was a custom built model from a German bike company called Velo de Ville. It was a good bike. Top of the line components, all the right brand names and specifications. But it was far from a great bike.

At the core of a great bike is the frame. That is what transfers the power efficiently, dictates the feel of the ride, and defines all the components and their placement. Tiny details in the frame impact how the components work together, mostly by forcing the rider to assume a certain posture on the bike. So while the DeVille, as she was nicknamed, had all the right parts, the frame was almost built to take the
joy out of the ride. It rode like a truck. And it was slow, a virtue of the frame shape and the mountain bike style tires that the frame demanded.

Besides being less than a party to ride, being slow created enormous practical difficulties. Chris was normally far ahead, almost always out of earshot and frequently out of sight. This meant I couldn’t make us stop for a beautiful photograph, couldn’t decide when and where lunch happened, couldn’t stop to pee without falling completely out of range.

It also left me vulnerable. If my bike had a problem, I was left to deal with it on my own, though Chris carries most of the bike maintenance equipment. And if I had a real problem, I was just screwed. In Romania, I got ambushed after Chris rode through a village about five minutes before I did. I narrowly escaped an attacker that lunged for my bike, and got pelted by rocks thrown by a schoolyard full of
children. Weeks later in Bulgaria, I had an ATV ride on my ass for 3 kilometers, the owner persistently demanding my watch. I was powerless to do anything but give them the middle finger, and was relieved when they drove off. Both those situations might have been avoided if I had kept up with Chris.

Then there was the pride thing. More than once, I would get to the top of a hill and see Chris just sitting there his helmet off. It was embarrassing. Every time we started a ride he would just breeze by, and seeing that every day would just make me angry. I berated Chris for not calling out all of his passes, but it had nothing to do with safety. I just wanted a reason to pissed that he kept passing me, that I was the drag on our speed. The issue became a pressure point between us, and it was a black mark on otherwise fantastic days on the road.

So when I had the chance to replace the bike in Istanbul, I jumped on it. It didn’t matter that the $1700 price tag was going to wipe out half my savings, because the money couldn’t come from the trip fund. I needed a bike that would be my friend.

The Trek 520 that I bought, the same as Chris’, now has 650 kilometers under its wheels. It rides like a dream. The best part is that now that I keep up, Chris and I can actually draft off each other, resting and leading in cycles of about 15 minutes. One new bike, but both of us are going much faster.

So was it worth it? Hell yeah. There’s easily another 10,000 miles on this trip, and we’re going to do it on bikes that can really rip the road.

How We Found Shelter in the Thunderstorm

Follow Up (by Chris)

Within minutes of filming the video diary, puddles were forming inside our tent. The rain was coming down hard, and we found ourselves forced to make the decision. Stay in the tent, or go?

Morgan took the position that we accept the Georgian’s offer, and move into their place for the night. For my part, I was stubborn. I didn’t feel like leaving all of our stuff outside in the tent — where it could get stolen during the night –or packing up our gear in the rain and getting soaked. We might well manage to stay drier inside the tent, I thought, and all I really wanted to do was curl up in my sleeping bag and pass out. It’s a fortunate thing I didn’t win the argument.

Staying with the “Commander” and his wife, a Georgian couple in their late 70’s, was one of the most special experiences we’ve had in a while.

We knocked on the door of the woman who had originally invited us in, a friend of the old couples. We were a little hesitant, because when we first arrived at the field, she’d berated us for sleeping on her neighbor’s land. She came out and chuckled, in an “I told you so” kind of way, then motioned for us to bring our bikes out in front of her garden door. Morgan and I were bummed. Did she just want us to move our tent? We were about to abandon the project and move back to our tent when she motioned for us to follow her, and took us to the Commander’s house. We had no idea where we were going, and weren’t entirely sure she was taking us to a place with a roof. I was worried for a moment she was going to flag down a car.

When Morgan and I showed up on the couple’s doorstep, a huge sense of relief came over us. We were going to be dry! But we weren’t done yet. They insisted that we bring everything into their yard- we’d only brought our critical items and electronics with us, leaving everything else in the tent—even our bikes were still in the fields. Our three kind hosts walked back out with us in the rain for 10 minutes as we packed everything up, unlocked our bikes, and walked them back to the house. I grumbled- who was going to steal our stuff in a field in the middle of an electric storm?

When the work was done, and our gear was safely on their porch, we were rewarded. They quickly ushered inside – into an ancient, wooden farmhouse with no electricity and only a single candle casting dim light from a lace-linened dining room table. The matriarch of the household – Sofia – gave us this big welcoming smile, and I knew we were going to be taken care of.

I glanced around the front room — wall paper was peeling in dog-eared fashion from years of seeping moisture, and a cabinet in the corner contained washed-out photographs that could have been from the 1950’s. Sofia patted me on the shoulder and motioned me to sit at the head of the room’s table. That table was soon laden with serving plates piled with bread, polenta, white cheese, and tomatoes – even though it was 11pm, well past dinner time.

“Vino VINO!” the Commander ordered. His wife scurried away and returned with the rose-colored liquid. It was served out of a plastic oil pan. After she poured it into three glasses, the “commander” (whom we had difficultly discerning if he had been an actual military commander, or if that was just his nickname) raised his glass in salute. We followed his lead, and watched aghast as he chugged the entire glass of wine in a two gulps through his missing two front teeth. Oh, so that’s how they do it I
thought. Then it was our turn. When the Commander looked at us expectedly, we chugged our glasses in imitation. It was terrible. I think the grapes hadn’t fermented yet, because it tasted like unripe tomatoes, and there didn’t seem to be any alcohol. We both forcibly suppressed gags in front of our hosts’ watchful eyes, and managed to smile back in gratitude. We knew how the important the gesture was to them, as a measure of their hospitality.

Over the rest of that night and the next morning, we caught a glimpse into the couple’s lifestyle – the humorous way they shouted at each other constantly from other sides of the house, the ancient radio that played Eastern European techno music, and the pride the Commander took in every fruit and vegetable his garden had to offer. I felt like an alien observer in a different world, with my shiny touring bike and laptop set in front of their modest home. But still — as I have experienced on numerous occasions along this journey — I found myself completely humbled by the way we were brought into their care.

“Nahvamdis, madloba” I said earnestly to the Commander on our way out the front gate – meaning “goodbye” and “thank you” in Georgian.

He grasped my face in his hands, eyes welled up to match his broad, toothless smile, and kissed me on both cheeks.

What had we done to deserve this? I remember thinking. I felt guilty that we left them nothing in return for their hospitality. I can’t believe I had wanted to stay in the tent.

Behind the Counter: Learning How to Make Ramadan Bread

A metal mixing vat was already in operation when we entered the back of the bakery, grinding in slow rotation against a solid stone base. I peered inside. Clumps of flour and water merged together stubbornly, giving way to the pressure of a large belt-driven turning arm. The whole machine croaked and quivered under the protests of the thick bread dough — though the mixing arm continued through the strain, relentlessly. I watched the churning waves of dough rise and fall along the contours of the container. This, I was told, is the first step in making a special type of bread, for the Muslim tradition of Ramadan. It’s called “Ramadan Bread,” and over the following two hours, I had the pleasure of seeing the step-by-step process of how it is made at Istanbul’s Unis bakery.

Unis is located right across the street from our apartment in Istanbul. I had been there dozens of times, but had never the occasion to venture beyond the front counter, where their finished breads and pastries are seductively displayed in neat, organized rows. That morning, however, I decided to ask one of the bakers something I was curious about – could he show me the secrets behind making Turkish bread?

It was an unusual request for a foreign tourist. The baker paused for a moment, and then called his manager Jüber, who instructed me to be back at the bakery at 2 pm sharp.

Morgan and I were a couple minutes late, so when we encountered Jüber,he quickly ushered us inside so we wouldn’t miss the mixing process. Jüber has a pretty good grasp of how the baking process goes down; he has been managing Unis bakeries for 40 years. Since co-founding the chain in 1972, he has overseen the growth of Unis to 50 stores across greater Istanbul, and Unis is now one of the most recognizable bakery chains in the city. The particular store in our neighborhood, he told us, is only one of five stores that does the actual baking for the entire chain. The rest of the stores run on the company’s extensive distribution service.

“In this store, we go through 1500 kilos of flour a week” Jüber explained, scooping out handfuls from the different flour bags to show us the variety of grains. “During Ramadan, for instance, we will be baking nonstop until 9pm tonight. We need to produce about 5000 loaves.”

The pressure to produce such large quantities of bread is nothing new for Jüber and his crew of trusted bakers. The bakery’s back room only closes one hour each day, from 10 to 11pm. I had thought the place was empty at night, but it turned out the bakery’s busiest hours are in the early morning, when Unis makes most of its bread products to have ready by breakfast time at the neighborhood’s local hotels and restaurants.

“Alright, how about that? We’ve been eating Hilton bread every morning,” I joked to Morgan.

A loud clang diverted my attention to the rising racks. The bakers had pulled out one of the shelves, and were beginning to shape the dough balls into Ramadan bread’s signature form – thin saucers with a pizza-crust crease around the outside, and thin, mogul-like mounds spread throughout the middle. They did it fast, dicing the dough with their hands in a flurry of movement that seemed mechanical. “Trust me, it’s not as easy as it looks” Jüber said with a knowing smile.

Watching the whole process, I felt like such a city kid, with no idea where most my food comes from, or how it’s made. For the bakers, the process was second-nature. For me, I was just fascinated by all the tricks and intricacies which they had obviously perfected over decades. They were the little things I never would have thought of. Things like pouring ice into the flour mixture to keep the dough from getting sticky in the summer heat; like spreading a water mixture over the top of the bread’s “moguls” so they wouldn’t get too crispy; and like releasing three bursts of steam into the oven trays to set the proper humidity. It was a glimpse into a time-honored Turkish tradition.

When Jüber mentioned that we were the first foreigners to ever request a lesson in baking, it also made me appreciate how sometimes unusual requests are granted simply because no one else asks. I made a mental note that we need to do this type of thing more often.

The best part? Jüber gave us one of the breads as soon as it came out of the oven. Morgan and I juggled the scolding hot loaf across the street, and promptly into the kitchen of our apartment, where we fashioned a stick of butter and feasted.

Video Credit: Morgan