cycling

Adventures with Norwegian Children

It was a Tuesday morning in early August, and we got off the train at Finse, Norway, a snow-covered mountain-top town with only a rail station, bicycle-rental shop, and lodge. The nearest anything-else is a 30-minute drive away, if the roads aren’t frozen over. The trail that begins here, the Rallervegen, was built from 1902-1904 for railroad workers building the tracks. It is now a famous bicycle route. We were so excited to cycle this 3-foot-wide path down the mountain. Other than a few other cyclists all we saw were sheep and goats.

We headed out on the pebbly, unpaved trail to ride the winding 4,000-foot descent. We snaked along rivers, passed by countless waterfalls, went up and over a few snow-covered passes (where we had to get off and push our bikes), and saw an abundance of super-fuzzy moss-covered rocks. About a third of the way down the trail we came upon four girls, right in the middle of the path, between the ages of 5-12. They were suited up in snowsuits with a small folding table, some folding chairs, pitchers of lemonade and fruit punch, and a plate of cookies. They excitedly offered us refreshments as my boyfriend said to me, out of the side of his mouth, “Where are their parents?” I smiled at him, knowing we’d have an interesting lunch-time conversation about independence, nature, culture, and the benefits of being left to your own devices without any digital devices.

As we rode away we saw their home in the distance, maybe 500 feet away from their snack stand. It was the only home we saw that entire day, which also made us think about the experience of growing up so far from civilization. Of having only you and your siblings to occupy your time. Of wanting to meet new people and being totally cool with it being only ten cyclists a day. Of offering refreshments without any idea of making money off it. Of carrying these things from your far-away home. Of occupying yourselves all day without screens. Of finding people to practice English with. Of the simple joy of being able to brighten a stranger’s day.

We wondered how they would handle an injury. Our questions started from the overprotective and moved towards the Scandinavian way. Did they have a first aid kit? If someone got hurt would they carry her home? Would someone run to get help? Would they assess the situation and, if it wasn’t so serious, deal with it later knowing it was only a minor injury that didn’t require immediate attention? If it was a small cut or bruise, would they just grab some snow and make an ice pack or use the melted ice to clean the cut? Did they know of healing plants growing nearby?

These children were self-directing their own learning. They were creating experiences that forced them to act on the spot, navigate emotions and social interactions, make group decisions, and practice first impressions. They were building their self-confidence, independence, and self-regulation skills. These are important life skills that, I would argue, many millennials in the US are lacking.

This makes me wonder: We know that we are better able to learn new languages at a young age. Wouldn’t this also apply to social and emotional skills? If we focused on these skills in early childhood, they would be ingrained, and the next generation would be more adept at supporting each other and solving the world’s problems.  

Community in all Forms

In light of the Internet and the ability to ‘find’ your tribe, I have come across an ingenious peer network called Warm Showers. It’s CouchSurfing for cyclists. It’s a free place to stay with people who’ve done what you’re doing. It’s a worldwide network of people like me! I’ve had only incredible experiences staying with WS-folk. And now for some anecdotes:

The couple in their 60s whose kids have grown and left and encouraged them to host cyclists, as we are “kinder travelers” than the CouchSurfing crowd. Upon entering I was given a room, a towel for a warm shower, and told dinner would be ready in 30 minutes. The gentleman of the couple didn’t tell us until after dinner that he’s a retired 5-star Michelin chef. He made salad with fresh raspberry vinaigrette, and gluten free pasta with fresh veggies and a homemade tomato sauce. He apologized for whipping it up and not making a ‘real’ sauce. Ha! After dinner we looked through a stack of about 10 travel photo albums as without language (he only spoke French) we could communicate through image.

The bicycle-messenger who wanted us to stay forever and hang out and be his friend! He left us notes all over his apartment like, “Please stay another night! I’ll show you around town!”

The girlfriend of a bicycle-enthusiast (who was away at the time) who knew nothing of bicycles but was super happy to talk with us, cook for us, and send her neighbors to check up on us while she was away.

The couple in their 20s who met while on separate cycle tours through Romania. They lived in the attic of a converted brewery with amazing archway doors and ceiling cross-beams. The lady-cyclist made her own jam and sent us with cake for the road.

The couple in their 30s, living just outside the city, who’ve cycled the world. They became our friends. We hung out, made dinner, went out to dinner, and met them in the city. They are planning another adventure…

The couple in their 30s, living in a small city, who just came back from a 2.5 year cycle tour, were featured in their local newspaper, had very few belongings, paid $3/month to rent their apartment (because it could be sold at any moment and they’ll have to leave so that’s the deal. What a deal!) They just bought a house in the country, gutted it, and are rebuilding it to suit their needs, and bicycles. They get requests from Warm Showers everyday. They want to repay the community for the countless WS hosts they visited on their big trip and so they almost always have guests.

The retired racing cyclist with a house at the end of a road and a horse shed converted into a loft with extra beds and an external-facing kitchen. She had terraces of pineapples growing, a hot tub, some animals, and a kitchen she never used. She watched me make dinner for us with enthusiasm and constantly commenting on how impressed she was that I could just “whip up” a veggie-noodle stir-fry with many of her own ingredients!

The couple in their 30s living in the middle-of-nowhere France, in a gigantic house. They were excited to tell me about how cheaply they can live in this easy-to-host house, as they were able to stay connected to their friends and family who could crash with them any time for as long as they wanted. Every room of their house had at least one mattress on the floor and nothing else. They were prepared to host everyone they knew. They were also excited that in one year they would quit their jobs, buy touring bicycles, and travel the world together for as long as possible. I was their first Warm Showers guest and they made me pumpkin soup and sent me with snacks and route advice. They suggested I take a road that snaked down the side of the mountain they lived on, over a gushing river and luscious greenery. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever cycled.  (One year later: they’ve emailed me to say they quit their jobs and can I meet up with them somewhere on their journey!)

I’m humbled to be shown so much love from these people with whom I share a passion, a lifestyle, a sense of adventure, and a desire to learn from and about other cultures. They open their homes, give me the keys, tell me to eat anything, and are sometimes amazed at just how much I can eat! They understand my journey. They know what my needs are. We speak the same language. And the one thing we all agree on is that when cycling and staying with people, in their homes, you get to see a different side of the places you visit; you get to see the locals, the community, the traditions and customs. You get to really see how they live. And in all cases, you are humbled.

It’s amazing to connect and feel so connected because of this simple thread that weaves us. What if there were communities like this for all different hobbies and you could stay with people based solely on shared interests? Like CouchSurfing with a bit of Pinterest thrown in… Just thinking out loud here but there could be ways to connect with people traveling to a concert with people from that city who are also going. Or when there are conventions you could stay with people who have that interest in the host city: knitters, artists, scientists, foodies… it’s endless.

This could be the future: not networking, but finding your network.

Trusting in humanity

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My dream on this journey was to trust in humanity. I imagined pedaling into villages and being offered places to stay, meals to share, stories to discover.

On my last cycle-touring afternoon as I cycled in Montelimar, home of nougat, I spotted a creperie and wondered if they used my gluten-free-friendly sarassin (buckwheat) or regular old ble (wheat). I parked and strolled in to find an older gentleman behind the bar and a not-so-old gentleman drinking at the bar. I asked in my broken French about the gluten. I was shown the menu with the best deal yet: $12 for a salad, savory crepe, and sweet crepe. And he would make them both with just sarassin. Woohoo!

I sat down and the man at the bar began to talk with me. Realizing that my English is far superior to my French he shared with me, in English, that earlier this morning he had seen me, a fellow traveler, and called out to me in French, asking where I was headed. I hadn’t responded. I didn’t even remember this encounter. But now, seeing as we were in the same place he could ask me again. Fascinated about my journey he asked many routine questions: How many kilometers do I ride per day? (60-80) How heavy is my bike? (Not sure, but it’s heavy) Where do I stay? (Friends, other cyclists, camping when it’s warm) Where and when did I start this journey? (Amsterdam, 20 Sept) When and where will it end? (Barcelona, late November).

We got to talking and I shared that I didn’t have a place to stay yet, as I was going to email some people and check hotel rates after this delicious lunch. He said he had a place down the block with a spare room and I could crash with him. I had a good vibe from this guy. I came to learn that he had been to India 7 times. Seven times!!!! And had stayed several months each time, with gurus, sadus, and babas. We chatted for a long time and then I agreed to stay with him.

I’m happy to report that after a homemade gluten-free, vegetarian dinner we became fast friends. I shared my mandala art and we traded travel stories. It was a lovely evening.

And my dream came true. I met a nice stranger, found trust, and a comfy bed.

Choosing family

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Flashback to April 2015: She met me at the airport. I saw her and hugged her and we instinctually sat down on a bench and started talking, eating the smoothie and avocado she brought. After 30 minutes we realized we were still sitting in the airport, so distracted by our catching up in person that we never left. We headed out on a train towards Gent.

We are soul mate best friends who hadn’t seen each other in 4 months.

The Bed and Breakfast she had been running is in the center of Gent, Belgium, and is owned by a family who we knew from their stay at Sadhana Forest. The B&B is a huge, old, wooden, house that creaks as you walk through it. The many floors and rooms each have their own personality and their own half-finished projects. At one point I had to step through a human-sized hole in the wall of the son’s bedroom in order to use the bathroom. The three rented rooms and the vegan smoothie, bread, and spreads breakfast were just right.

We commandeered bikes from the house and set out on adventures: riding through squares, along canals, to find french fries and chocolate and vegan restaurants and coffee, and to experience the city together as though we lived there and did this sort of thing everyday.

From my journal: “I am here in Gent, walking down winding cobblestone paths, coming upon the setting sun over the canal… Last night we went to steamy jazz club down a graffiti-ed alley that vibrated your soul. The players changed frequently but the jam never stopped. It was electric and I couldn’t stop smiling. I even got up and danced in this club, so overcrowded people were sitting on the stage.”

I could see myself living in Gent. It’s a perfect mix of old-world architecture, some new modern design, and tons of young artsy people speaking in mixed-language concoctions.

A few weeks later we biked like crazy fools up and down the hills of her hometown, Barcelona, stopping to explore graffiti-strewn neighborhoods, the beach, markets, the best touristy things- all flying down the bike paths of huge main roads, slicing the city in parts until I knew my way without having to think about it. We sat in cafes drinking espresso, drawing mandalas, making plans for new adventures, sharing our emotions, creating programs to solve the world’s problems.

We slept and ate, and ate, and ate at her parent’s home: the apartment she grew up in. A 7-story building filled with 14 apartments in total that are each occupied by a member of her family. They collectively own the building. I marveled at the modern home, interior-designed by her mom and dad, with Andy Warhol prints and Beatles anthologies and sculptures and terraces.

Routinely we would enter her apartment to find her mom making gluten free vegan lasagna, pizza, risotto, Spanish spinach (with raisins and pignoli nuts), smoothies, whipped frozen pear desserts, soymilk flan and chocolate soymilk flan… gluten free snacks waiting on the kitchen counter for us to take on our daily adventures.

Barcelona is marked for me by family- both of ours, with whom I spent much time. Both of our families struggled to understand our desire to volunteer and travel. We both grew up upper-middle class from parents who wanted us to grow up, get jobs, and be happy. We desire different things. We want to give back and learn and share. We want to make the world a better place.

I’ve made what seems like big life decisions in the past few years, though they seem like obvious next steps to me. I give my service, my volunteerism. I’m vegan. I practice gift economy. I believe in child-led learning. I value experience over stuff. This is who I am.

My mom wants to know what my goals are. This is a good exercise for me. I want to make the world a better place than I found it, on many levels- as a friend, teacher, care-taker of the environment, a lover, a sister, a daughter, to animals, to people I work with, to strangers and old friends, to the education movement and field of, to communities I come across, to shopkeepers and train-ticket takers, to materials I interact with, through art, making people smile, love. To leave energy, creativity, and positivity wherever I go- sprinkled like fairy dust. These are my goals.

One night in Barcelona my family met me at her house and we all had dinner together: both of us with our parents, meeting for the first time. Like children who have tons of playdates before their mom’s meet. Or lovers who are ready to take the next plunge. We’d been talking about each other to our families for almost 2 years. We were ready to share together. Our parents hit it off. Our moms with their silk scarves, black, patent leather shoes, and funky jewelry. The men talking music and history and culture. We sat there, across the table from each other as we translated between our parents, smiling till it hurt, feeling blessed to have the room filled with years of so much love, from across the globe.

People of my generation talk about choosing their friends as family. She is my soul-sister. I choose her.

Hills, trucks, strangers, and airplane wheels

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I had really wanted to camp on this cycle trip of mine. Unfortunately for me, France is experiencing colder weather than usual for this time of year. My wonderful hosts in Lyon let me stay one more day to set up some more Warm Showers hosts for my trip down the Rhone River.

I headed out yesterday morning from Lyon. I was advised to take the train the first 20 kilometers as it’s industrial and there are no separate or scenic bike routes. I often don’t heed this advice as I enjoy seeing all the parts of a city: the center, the residential, the posh, the up-and-coming, the industrial, the suburban, even the highways and major intersections. You get a real feel for the people when you see the many different environments they create and how those places interact with each other: Are there clear boundaries? Does the friendliness of people change as the neighborhoods change? Do drivers and pedestrians smile back? What’s the sanitation like? The graffiti? The teenagers? The construction workers? The construction signs? These are all aspects of the culture of a people that we often don’t look for, yet they are the majority, the everyday, the this-is-what-we’re-like. If you combine this with the tourism side, the city center, the museums, you can really get a feel for their values, how they live, and how they want the world to see and think of them.  

Finally I met with the river in what looked on the map like a small city. I crossed over the river on a cute little pedestrian bridge into Vienne. I found a small shopping center, locked up the bike, found an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, and the center for tourism where I went first to get wifi locations and some route advice. The center had many young people working there who were all deeply apologetic and maybe even a bit embarrassed that there was almost no wifi in town. Not even there at the tourism center. They were, however, excited to tell me about the sign-posted, newly paved cycle route along the river that I could take for pretty much the next 300 km.

Before leaving Vienne I had to find some internet to contact my next hosts, get there exact address and find my route to them with the assistance of my phone’s GPS and the map app Pocket Earth. I stumbled into the “old city” filled with churches and even a courtyard with a small Pantheon. And there was Bar du Temple, what may have been the only bar/café in town with wifi. They seemed prepared for me: they gave me coffee and didn’t hesitate to charge my phone behind the bar while I took in the lunch crowd and slowly sipped a double-espresso.

Very soon after I found myself on a 2-meter wide bike path, just a bit higher than the river, with the changing autumn leaves, and not a soul in sight. I had the whole river to myself! It was very cold so I layered up and then I got lost in the scenery, void of vehicles, people, or noises other than nature. There was peace and calm and I couldn’t stop smiling; this was the adventure I had dreamed of when I first learned about cycle-touring; riding between water and farmland with the changing smells of nature.

Two hours and 40 km quickly passed. I ventured off the river route, called Via Rhona, into a hamlet to find my hosts. Without realizing it I had begun a steep ascent filled with very fast-moving cars and trucks zigzagging up and away. Quickly the shoulder I was riding on disappeared, and after my previous 70 km of the day I was exhausted. I was about 300 meters high and didn’t know how much further it or I could go. I could see on my map that I was only a few kilometers away from my host’s home. What to do?

Across the road was a truck, on a shoulder-pocket that seemed to be there just for emergencies. I waited for traffic to subside and hurried across. The driver was cleaning his dinner gear and getting ready to get back on the road to drive some Boeing wheels across Europe to get repaired. Most of his truck was empty and he graciously offered to drive me over the rest of the hill. It turned out to be only 1 km more, but 200 more meters high.

Finally I was on my bicycle on a back country road with 2 km to go. But the road was still slowly rising and I was more tired then ever. I cycled-and-paused probably 20 times. Unbeknownst to me, my host began to get worried and came out looking for me in his car. He found me and drove all of my bags to his house, riding slowly in front of me, cheering me on out his window. I was able to ride the last kilometer with all of my might, moving faster (without all of my gear!) up the slow gradient.

The young couple I stayed with live in the middle of nowhere, in a huge house (4 bedrooms!) in a hamlet, with a garden. They just turned 30. They have huge parties where they host all 30 of their friends for a weekend at a time, with friends sleeping everywhere. They moved here for a job opportunity. Plus it’s so inexpensive to live here. She’s an optician and he is a chemist who specialized in centrifuges. They come home for lunch. They are saving up to take off on a year-long journey comprised of cycling, hitchhiking, and a few different continents. We hit it off right away. They made me pumpkin soup and promised to show me a scenic bike path, down the hill, for the next part of my journey.

Once again I am humbled by the kindness in this world. Yes, the Warm Showers network is special in that we’ve had similar experiences and can guess, pretty accurately, the needs of each other. But everyone from the bartender who charged my phone, to the truck driver who gave me and my bike a ride, to these hosts for whom I was their first Warm Showers guest(!) treated me like family. With a quiet understanding, an extra blanket to sleep with, a cup of hot coffee waiting for me in the morning, and the knowledge that we are bound as members of humanity, we are connected. I could see these people at any time in my life and, again, we’d help each other out. And if we don’t see each other again, we know, at least, that we’re all continuing to connect with new people in an effort to make the world feel like one big community.

Gratitude for strangers, trains, and the Alternatiba Festival

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I am in awe of the kindness I’ve received along this journey. The kinship I feel with every other human I meet is life affirming. We really are all one.

And now for some excerpts:

Shortly after leaving Amsterdam I found myself cold and soaked from heavy rain that I was too late in gearing up for. Halfway to my next destination was Rotterdam. I cycled aimlessly through the city wondering what to do: find a place to stay for the night, keep going in the rain, buy better rainproof gear… And then I turned a corner and found the Bever store, a well-regarded sports apparel chain in the Netherlands. Knowing the staff there are outdoor sports enthusiasts I was looking for some sympathy and maybe even some ideas. I entered the store and the front-of-store clerk immediately offered to watch my bike and gear. (In any other store you wouldn’t even be able to bring your bike inside!) I parked by the register and began to walk around, looking for better waterproof gloves. Another Bever-guy came over and, taking one look at my dripping self, offered to take my sneakers and socks to put on the heater for a while. He also got me a cup of coffee while yet another Bever-guy looked up weather forecasts. “The rain should be stopping in exactly 30 minutes,” he said matter-of-factly. Yeah right, I thought. These three guys kept me caffeinated and dry for about an hour until the rain did actually stop. When customers came in they apologized for not being able to stay and chat. I warmed up, put my feet in plastic bags, and geared up to keep moving. The Bever-guys said that if at any point it started to rain or the roads were slippery I should come back and I could stay with one of them in Rotterdam that night. One of them even gave me his email to keep in touch and share blogs.

While sharing this story recently, my audience seemed to think the Bever-guys were helping me because I was a single woman in need of assistance. My feeling from that day in the Bever store was more of camaraderie. They knew I wanted to keep going because they, too, would want to keep cycling and not be held up by weather. It did not feel like a gender-reaction; it felt like a cyclist-understanding.

A week or so later I stayed with a friend’s family in northern France and woke up to find that my friend’s mom had done my laundry and hung it to dry in the sun in her garden. When I thanked her she said, “I’m a mom! That’s what I do!” in French.

Just this past week on my way from Paris to Lyon I booked a train online, and checked the box for bringing my bicycle aboard. Arriving at the station, the conductor took one look at me, blew a drag of cigarette smoke in my face, and started yelling at me that no-way-was-my-bike-getting-on-this-train. I explained my special ticket. He said I was wrong. And then all of a sudden three lovely French people came to my rescue; they talked with the conductor, reasoned with him, explained my situation, asked him to make an exception, and then they made a plan, in French, that I later became aware of. One distracted the conductor, while the other two told me to dismantle my bike and then they all took parts of my bike and luggage and said to meet back up in my train car 10 minutes before arrival. It was such a whirlwind. I sat in my seat realizing that I had my bike frame and some clothing but not my wheels or camping gear and these strangers in different train cars with names I didn’t know could fall asleep and miss the stop and then what would I do? Sure enough we all met back up, I reassembled the bike, loaded it up and then began to say thank yous and goodbyes. The French people were not a unified group- there was a man and woman who knew each other, and another man who was on his own. The couple invited me to AlternatiBa, an alternative lifestyle festival happening that day. The other man said he was also going to it but first there was a Velorution event, a bicycle revolution. He didn’t speak much English, but motioned for me to follow him. I explained that I had to meet my lovely Warm Showers hosts and drop off my bags. He looked at my map and again motioned me to follow him. First we went to his home, met his wife, had some coffee, and washed the bike grease off our hands. Then he led me to my hosts. Then we went, with his wife, on a bicycle/alternative lifestyle extravaganza. We even met up with the man and woman from the train who were running a booth about vandalizing violent public advertisements. Just my kind of people.

I had met the most wonderful people who saved the day, just because helping out fellow humans is what we do.