Paris to the Mediterranean

Sept 26, 2021

Overview

Paris is a place that holds many memories for me. Remembering the glory days of PBP and trips I had taken with my family. This time, I was planning to meet my American friends for a tour of France and Spain.

My friends, Scott and Gillian from Portland, OR would meet me here in Paris`. We would tour together through France and Spain for three weeks. This was something new for me. I had never led a tour before. I wanted it to run smoothly, so getting to Paris a few days before our meeting allowed me time to scope it out a bit.

The idea was to take a local Paris train west 50km to Rambouillet and from there follow the PBP race course out to Brittany. In Brittany, we would meet my good friends, Joël and Irène, near Rennes. These two have taught me many important lessons of bike touring. They maintain an excellent blog of their adventures:

https://cyclomigrateurs.fr

Joël and Irène had already planned a bike camping tour for us through Brittany and Normandy. This is where they are living. Traveling by bike and staying at campgrounds was something they were quite experienced with. I knew it would be a wonderful tour.

After our tour of Brittany, we would continue on to Barcelona. The total distance for this trip would be too much to cover by bicycle, in the time we had. So we planned to take trains from Rennes to Avignon. This would put us close to the Mediterranean. There we would follow the coast by bicycle to Barcelona, the heart of Catalonia.

At the time of this writing, We are in Aigues-Mortes, very close to the Mediterranean. I take the day off the bike to update the blog and avoid another passing storm. There have been many this summer in Europe.

Details and Highlights

Both Scott and Gillian have experience cycling and backpacking. Gillian however is just recovering from a kidney problem that required her to be in the hospital for a week. She was still regaining her strength. We agreed to keep the cycling to 50km per day.

50km (31 miles) per day is a leisurely pace. We could get a late morning start and stop at interesting places or cafes, bakeries, or grocery stores whenever we liked. We adjusted the planned route as we went. When rain was forecasted, we stayed in Airbnb’s, otherwise we stayed in campgrounds, or bivouacked.

The first day out from Rambouillet, I had Komoot, our navigation app set up to accept more challenging paths. It indeed found a route through the Rambouillet Woods that was very remote, and alluring.

A system of dirt roads in the Rambouillet woods south west of Paris

There we encountered one short descent that was a challenge even for my bike. With both wheels locked up and plowing through the soft earth, studded with fist sized rocks; I managed to make it without spilling the equipment or dumping the bike. Gillian and Scott did not complain. They are good sports.

I set up Komoot to avoid these trails in the future.

With the modifications from our plan to follow the PBP course, we only occasionally came across places that I recognized from years past. One such moment was coming into Mortagne-au-Perche.

This is the first time station in the PBP. A place a contestant would reach in the first 6 hours of that event. We were well into our third day of the journey. But, no matter. We were keeping to our own laidback schedule.

As we were approaching Brittany, we were in continual communication with Irène and Joël. They were returning from a bike trip in Normandy. Irène was planning a dinner party to welcome us.

She was making Boeuf Bourguignon. A very special meal requiring more than a day of preparation. They had also prepared a full tour of Brittany that they were adjusting down to meet our time constraints.

We decided to accelerate our arrival by taking some local trains through Le Mans, and Laval, a total distance of about 60km which put us a day ahead of schedule.

Meet Joël and Irène at their home

I had little doubt that it would be a good meeting. Joël and Irène are exceptional hosts and have a lot of common interests with Scott and Gillian. All were knowledgeable in permaculture, and minimizing our impact on the environment.

Scott and Gillian are planning to build a straw bail house in Washington state. Joël and Irène’s home incorporate innovative ideas like a dry toilet and grey water irrigation. There was a good bonding from the start along with plans for future encounters. We planned a day trip to Rennes, for the next day.

Tour of Rennes

Rennes, France is the capital of Brittany and an easy 30min bike ride from Joël and Irène’s place in the countryside. The five of us biked in. Joël left later and met us in town after his meeting with the roofer.

We were shown the important buildings and the best chocolate shops in town. There, I had to buy a Kouign-amann, to share with the group at dinner. This is a celebrated confection of Brittany. It is said to contain 50% butter, 50% flour, and 50% sugar. With nearly the density of a neutron star, it is allowed to break the laws of Newtonian physics.

Pass Sanitaire

In France there is a straight forward method to show others that you are not at risk of spreading Covid-19. It is called a Pass Sanitare. You get a QPC label you can show on your phone when you have either been vaccinated, or have tested negative within the past three days.

I was lucky to find a Pharmacy in eastern France that created a Pass Sanitare for me from my CDC card and US Passport. When Scott and Gillian showed up in Paris, we could not find a Pharmacy that would do this for us.

Thus they had to get a sticks up their noses every few days until we found a more permanent solution based on their vaccine record. You could say this became a sticking point with Scott and Gillian.

To Mont Saint Michelle

Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the seven wonders of the world. A most impressive place that has its recognition well earned. It was Scott’s first time there and visiting this place is one of his long term goals.

Irène and Joël constructed a tour that could get us all the way to the coast at Mont-Saint_Michel and back in just a five day bike trip. The trick was that Irène was supporting us by taking our gear in the car, and Joël engineered a return to Rennes by train.

We went by way of a small canal, and then the river Rance. Additionally, when we reached the Atlantic coast we had a stiff tailwind pushing us east. This ensured a flat journey that allowed for us to move at a good pace (60 or 70km per day).

Along the coast we encountered a group of Land yachts, three wheeled vehicles powered by the wind. They could easily move at 50km/hr and get up on two wheels, if the pilot was not careful.

Land Yachts

For the entire five day journey we stayed at campgrounds or bivouacked. Irène carried coolers in the car and met us each day. This allowed for some very fancy campground dinners like pasta carbonara, including candelabras.

One morning Gillian reported her air mattress developed a substantial leak. We tried unsuccessfully to patch it. The issue was that there were many tiny holes distributed over an area about the size of a dinner plate. We surmised that Gillian had somehow experienced an episode of added weight and sustained friction during the night.

Scott and Gillian claimed no recollection of this, even after we pressed them on the issue. We all laughed our way through this bit of French humor.

Tim finds the leaks in Gillians air mattress by dunking the inflated mattress in the canal

Mont-Saint-Michel was magnificent. The pictures say it best, and pale in comparison to actually being there. In fact, Scott and I left the camp ground early the next morning to get in a second visit before moving on.

The return to Joël and Irène’s place involved taking our bicycles on the train. Joël taught us that there are many classes of trains in France, each with their own set of rules regarding bicycles.

The TER train we used, had the most lax rules. However, if a TER train was already carrying its limit of bicycles (maybe 6). The conductor could refuse to let you on. So, we made contingency plans should this occur. It was a good training exercise. It was not needed. We arrived back without issue.

Bikes loaded in a French TER train

This gave us time to go shopping in Rennes for an air mattress for Gillian and a new lighter sleeping bag for me. Then of course, another fine meal at Joël and Irène’s place before shoving off the next morning. Their neighbors, Edith and Michel joined us for aperitif and galettes. I had a chance to make my own galette under the tutelage of Irène.

On to southern France

Here is where I encounter new territory. I have never been to southern France. We started out with a three legged train commute from Rennes to Avignon using two types of French trains. Each with its own set of rules regarding bikes.

Though Joël helped set it up for us, it was a good final exam exercise in French trains and the possibility of complicating issues. For instance, the plan required getting up before dawn in Nantes to catch a train to Lyon.

We rehearsed our Nantes plan the night before catching the train. I’m glad we did. It can sometimes be complicated getting the bicycles through the system of elevators and electronic gates in the hotel and train station. But the next morning we did it without issue. Consider us tested voyagers! In France anyway, Spain may be quite different.

Riding the trains for a day and a half is dull compared to riding the bike. The chances to explore new cities where the highlights of that part of our trip.

Lyon has catacombs and UNESCO protected neighborhoods. We didn’t have enough time to find them. Nantes has a well preserved chateau with unusual art exhibited within. Thankfully, we got to see this. Near the end of the day we also found a museum of robotic creations, but we were too late to get in the main exhibit. This put a taste in our mouths for return visits in the future.

Once we got to Avignon, the time pressure was off. There was an city alive with performances, everywhere. I stopped for my weekly zoom meeting with my family. I sought and found a sidewalk cafe with good WiFi, which I needed for zoom.

During the meeting several sound stages were constructed in the street. An animated performance erupted. With the center of attention spontaneously bouncing from one stage to another. I walked around with my cell phone to capture what I could. I hoped it was a good distraction for us.

It was my birthday. Without having any real plan, aimlessly wandering the street offered one special moment after another.

Scott and Gillian found an art exhibit going on in an ancient church. They checked our Pass Sanitaire and let us in.

It was most unusual. The artist was present with large bins of clay. He was offering a chance for the audience to make a facial impression in the clay. I volunteered and the artist instructed me in English what was required.

Basically, I was to hold my breath and then get my face shoved deep into the clay. When instructed, I let out a breath slowly to provide a release layer of air between my face and the deformed clay. It worked well. It didn’t cost me anything to become a work of art.

My face plant impression in the clay
The method is demonstrated here on another person

I got to tell my friends that I got plastered on my birthday. Ron pointed out that I made quite an impression. Reid added that I could say that in the end I appeared quite shit-faced. I count on my friends to tell it as they see it.

Scott and Gillian took me out to dinner at a restaurant of my choosing. At an Italian restaurant, I had fresh pasta with pesto sauce I will not soon forget. Thanks!

Handing over the reins

So, as October approaches, I become aware of time constraints. I need to manuever myself to meet my brother, his son Toshi, and my good friend Jim Kern in Portugal, or possibly Spain. I hope to be there on Oct 10. I also need to get out of the EU Schengen area before my visa waiver expires on Oct 26.

The best plan is to move my bicycle and gear outside of the EU (probably Morocco), then go meet the others. After my visit with my brother, I will return to Morocco in the last days before Oct26.

Unfortunately, I just learned that the ferry from Spain to Morocco is shut down because of the pandemic. Yikes! Too bad my good friend David Bradley is not still around. He’d have had a plan for me.

While I could fly me and my bike to Africa, I prefer a lower energy solution.

The other thing is that Scott and Gillian need to catch a flight home from Barcelona on October 11. Which is about 450km away. At the pace they have been keeping, they can do this with a few days left over for sight seeing, no problem.

They just need to go self guided. I need to keep a faster pace now.

So, fortunately, Scott and Gillian are eager to learn how Komoot, the navigation app works. They have downloaded it to their phones and on the last few legs of the trip, Scott and Gillian have been practicing. I think they’ve learned it well enough. They just need to keep their phones charged until they reach their destination.

Tune in next time to see how this Gordian knot gets untied. Just around the bend is the Mediterranean coast. My first time in this part of the world.

Blue trace is the planned route. Red trace is the travelled route

Zurich to Paris

September 5, 2021

The total distance from Zurich to Paris is almost 800km by the route I took. This included a visit to Überlingen, Germany and the home of my good friends Henry and Romy.

It’s a flat 85km ride across Switzerland to the border with Germany, then a ferry ride across the lake to Meersburg. A few kilometers further and I was in Ueberlingen, an easy one day trip. Flat rides are fast.

The border crossing by bike was a non-event. I fully expected to have my vaccination status checked, coming into the EU and all. I rode across the border and no one even noticed me doing it.

The route from Zurich to Überlingen am Bodensee

Romy and Henry live near the shore of Bodensee (Lake of Constance). Ueberlingen is a resort town and also was the home of Perkin-Elmer in Germany where Henry and I worked many years ago.

They have a new dog since I’ve seen them two years ago, a good looking and well behaved chocolate Labrador named Mila, just eight months old.

Henry and Romy are good hosts. Like last time, Henry gave me his office with a single bed and an adjacent bathroom to use as my own. Romy prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner with a smile.

Henry and I have a shared interest in investing. He is far more analytical than I, so I am always keen to see what tools he is using. Much of it he puts together himself. He’s an engineer after all.

We are of different minds when it comes to issues like vaccination, and climate change. I guess normally people would carefully avoid these topics, but Henry and I just jump right in.

What I appreciate most is that Henry is smart and we can have a good debate. We don’t argue the facts. We look them up. It leaves me with a better appreciation of the opposing argument. This is something you don’t get if you only speak to people you agree with.

Still, I feel like Henry and I are hammering away at each other’s position with wooden mallets on tool steel. Opinions are hard to change.

Henry’s position stands on the fact that mRNA based vaccines are new, and the long term effects are unknown. We get into long discussions on how many people are actually injured by the virus. It turns out that Germany has handled the pandemic quite well.

Germany flattened the curve far better than the US, and also much of Europe. Henry is not quick to congratulate his government’s response however. He sees it as overbearing and destructive to the economy.

Romy does not speak English and so my German was put to the test here. Frequently Henry would chime in with the needed translation. I clearly need more practice. She introduces me to her friends as ‘Der Weltenbummler’.

But Romy shows real joy in my being there, that transcends language. When the day came to say goodbye, she packed me a big lunch for the road then walked me out to the garage and saw me off with tears in her eyes. I told her I would come back again sometime.

The Klemm family is doing well. I visited the home of their daughter, Jeanine and her husband, Markus. The grandson Benno is now nine and has taken an interest in robotics.

When I was there, Benno burst in the door with a plan to set up a lemonade stand with some friends in the neighborhood. He had a plan written out for his mom to make 4 liters of lemonade and 3 dozen muffins. Clearly a good engineering candidate.

I would’ve liked to visit Henry’s sister, Heike this time. But we could not make it work. She lives in North Germany, near Essen. It gives me another reason to come back to Germany.

My concern was making it to Paris to meet my friends Scott and Gillian on Tuesday Sept 7, and also miss the rain forecasted in Paris on Saturday, Sept 4. Though I am set up to ride in the rain, and have done so a few times on this trip, I like riding on sunny days. Rainy days are good for catching up on my blog or visiting museums.

On toward Paris

Heading north from Ueberlingen through the Black Forest and across the Rhein river into Strasbourg, France
There is a gradual climb in the Black Forest, then a precipitous drop into Hornberg, Germany. Thereafter the course is quite flat into Paris.

The climb up from Bodensee through the Black Forest is gentle and I make good progress under overcast skies. There is a huge descent in this direction. When I did this route two years ago, it was a huge climb, as I was going in the opposite direction.

I wanted to get down into the flatlands before it started raining. Steep gravel roads can be difficult in the rain. I just made it into Hornberg when a light rain started falling. Success!

Though it was only 3pm and more daylight left, I decided to stop for the day in a small village on the Kinzig river. My goal of making it to Paris before the rain on Saturday was at risk. But it was raining now and my rain jacket was starting to have zipper issues. A tall German beer made the decision easier to make.

Arrived in France

National border runs straight down the middle of the Rhein river in Strasbourg

Crossing from Germany into France is all within the EU. The dominant language changes, but it’s all one currency. No one stops me to ask questions, as expected. I do notice one difference as I head deeper into France. The restaurants ask to see a ‘Pass Sanitare’.

Pass Sanitare

A Pass Sanitare is a QR code that says you have either been vaccinated, tested recently, or recovered from Covid. Showing my CDC certificate doesn’t work here. Well OK, I am a cyclist not using trains, nor buses. I am eating outdoors in sidewalk cafes or parks. I can skate by without a Pass Sanitare for a while. As I head into major cities, this becomes harder.

There is an email process for getting a Pass Sanitare where I send an image of my CDC certificate and Passport. I am still waiting for any reply on this.

I was getting worried, until I found a pharmacy clerk that spoke English in the town of Bar-Le-Duc. He scanned my documents and filled out the forms on line for me. It took less than five minutes. He printed out a one page document and said “That’s all you need.” He was right. I photographed the QR code and show that whenever needed. It’s a cool system.

In Paris it is used everywhere. Sidewalk cafes, Bateau Moche, even the Eiffel Tower. I noticed a train load of passengers boarding a regional train (not a subway). They scanned the QR code of every passenger as they came onto the platform. It’s a big job when there are fifty passengers, but with three people scanning it does not create a huge backlog.

OK but I’m getting ahead of my story

Following the la Marne to Paris

Canals are marvelous things. I remember my dad explaining this to me as a boy. They are built to enable ships to move across land. The current in the canal is imperceptible, but not zero. Think of it as a set of stairs. Each stair is flat. Between each stair there is a few meters of elevation difference. There is also a lock (escluse in French).

The lock serves to lift (or drop) the boats a few meters to the next stair in an orderly fashion. Yet there are no pumps or power sources to lift the boats. It all works on gravity. There is an upstream gate and a down stream gate surrounding a space (the lock) which is large enough to contain a ship.

Ships travel up the canal in sequence like this: With the downstream gate open, the ship can move into the lock. The downstream gate closes behind the ship. Slowly the upstream gate is opened to allow water to flood the lock. The incoming water lifts the ship to the elevation of the next stair. When the upstream gate opens completely the ship is free to travel the next stair. Ships traveling down the canal have a similar sequence. They use the same locks.

These locks take about five minutes to execute this sequence. They are unmanned and totally automated. The ships captain can start the sequence by pulling a rope hanging over the canal about 100m upstream and downstream of the lock. There is a lock every kilometer or more depending on how much elevation is to be gained.

La Marne is a 40 or 50m wide canal running 400km from Strasbourg to Paris. It connects the Rhein with the Seine and is a small part of a system of canals that spans Europe.
A network of canals spanning Europe, including canals crossing Switzerland.
Operating the lock part 1
Operating the lock part 2

So, I hoped you enjoyed my explanation of how a canal worked. Maybe someone can figure out this puzzle:

The canal is all gravity driven. Water moves from the higher elevation source to the lower elevation sink. So one would imagine if I left Strasbourg going up the canal (gaining elevation). I would continue to do so for the entire run all the way to Paris. This is not the case. The second half of the journey to Paris is going down the canal (losing elevation). How could this be possible?

Stories from along the canal

So the ride from Strasbourg to Paris goes through Alsace and Lorraine, regions. This is a first time for me. Nearly all of my experience in France has been west of Paris. The people here are wonderful, just like all the people I meet in France.

I make a stop for lunch at the Papar Hasard, a restaurant and bar in Lorraine. I am surprised to find that they have Galette saucisse on the menu, a speciality of Bretagne. I get talking with the owner who is from Bretagne originally.

She likes my story of traveling the world. I almost have her talked into joining me on the spot, except she has this restaurant to run. She gets me to promise to have an oyster and smell the ocean when I get to Bretagne.

Bar-Le-Duc

In Bar-Le-Duc, I pull off of the canal and cruise the town for some lunch. Just by sheer luck, this place is an important place in the history of bicycles. It is where the Michaux brothers (Ernest, and Pierre) invented the High-Wheeler in the mid 1800’s. The town commemorates this with a large monument, and the town also holds an annual bike race, with teams competing from many nations within Europe. There are even some from Asia.

While sitting at a sidewalk table out in front of the bakery, eating my lunch, I had several conversations with the locals, including the shop owner herself. The conversations were challenging in a fun way. Half in French, half in English. We would pull out a translator when necessary.

I was telling one guy that I am retired and touring for my own entertainment. We talked about bike racing a bit. When I mentioned that I had done the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) event, he insisted on buying me a pastry named after the event. In fact the shop owner overheard us and insisted on paying for part of the gift.

Then, minutes later a cyclist rode up and stopped at my table. William wanted to know about my bike and my travels. He told me about the monument to the Michaux brothers.

We started talking about PBP. He told me stuff I didn’t know. For instance in the 50’s, the event was held as a race. There were professional cyclists competing. Eventually this was discontinued because such a long non-stop race is not healthy for professionals.

William and I rode off together to go see the monument to the Michaux inventors. Cool moments!

One thing I noticed following the canal is there are places you get that are far from services, like a hotel. There was one day where my system kinda fell apart.

I use my smart phone to navigate and find services. To navigate, I do not need cell signal. Komoot downloads all the maps I need ahead of time. I just need GPS, which is always there. But near the end of the day, I usually start scouting for a place to buy food and sleep. Campground or hotel, it can all be found on-line. Unless there is no signal.

Komoot says there is a big town coming up but it is out of range for today. I scout around in some small towns and talk to the locals. I get suggestions for towns that are closer but well off my path. I am not interested in that. I’m stuck.

I start looking for good places to pitch my tent. A public park would be perfect except, I don’t know what the rules are. I figure the best thing would be to find a spot where I am not seen. I could stash my bike in the bushes.

While I am setting up my tent under a bridge, I am discovered by a young girl walking her dog. The dog is barking wildly and she is surprised to see me there. She hurries along and we do not speak at all.

My first bivouac in Europe

The next morning, I wake up before 7am, pack my stuff, and leave. I got away with it.

A similar situation comes up a few nights later. I am feeling a little more confident and I find a good spot with a place to take a bath.

My second bivouac in Europe

The next morning I find it had rained during the night. My clothesline was loaded with wet clothes. That and my fly tarp had to be put away wet.

Then as I was organizing it all. I am discovered by a man walking his dog. He asked me if I had slept there the night before. He spoke French mostly, but I could gather his meaning. I admit to it. He walks off with his dog, but returns a few minutes later. He asks me if I would come to his house for breakfast. I accept.

During breakfast, I ask him to tell me about this place in French on video. I will get someone to explain it to me later. I discover that he is the Mayor of this community that encompasses three villages.

His name is Jean-Paul Regnier. The commune is Val-d’Ornain

Caught in the act by the authorities
According to the local paper, he was re-elected mayor in 2020

After this surprising breakfast, I rode onward, looking for someplace where I could replace my rain jacket, dry out my stuff, get a better cellphone connection, etc. I also needed to fix some minor bike mechanical stuff. What I needed was a good old American shopping mall (almost ashamed to admit it).

As luck would have it, I found one in Nancy, France. Unfortunately it was Sunday and the stores were all closed. But the hotels were open for business. I stayed the night, and the following night.

The next morning I went to Decathlon, a major sporting good store. It had a bike mechanic, and a selection of rain jackets on sale. It turns out Eric, my bike mechanic is also a recumbent (velo couche) enthusiast. Though there were other bikes in queue, he immediately put mine on the work stand and told me it would be done at 4pm.

There was also an Orange dealer, the leading cell service provider in France. Everything I needed all within walking distance of my hotel. I was in the mood to celebrate my good luck and walked over to a good restaurant for a meal. I was refused for lack of a Pass Sanitare. Can’t have everything go your way…

One evening as I was setting up my tent at a campground, I met Denis and Brigitte. A cycling couple from France. Denis is a forest ranger, Brigitte is a primary school teacher. She spoke English quite well and was happy to help translate for me.

They live near the Black Forest, but across the border in France. They go out on an extended cycling tour every year and had useful information for me. For instance, pitching a tent for a one night sleep out is called a bivouac. This is legal in France, as long as it is for one night only. The next night you can also camp out but it must be in another location. Good to know!

Arrived in Paris

Just off the bike, my unshaven face still caked with salt

It was a stretch for me to make it by Friday Sept 3. I had to pull a few 100km days back to back. It wasn’t too hard. The course was pretty flat. The rain I was hoping to avoid on Saturday did occur, though not much.

Anyway, I’m here waiting to sync up with my friends Gillian and Scott from Portland, OR. I get to take a week off the bike before our next adventure cycling out to Bretagne and beyond.

Note to the reader

I am aware that the order these stories appear in may not be exactly chronological. The stories are true, but the order is probably wrong in at least one case.

Return to Blogging

May 18, 2021

While I have not yet returned to touring. With the pandemic waning, I know it will not be long now. Meanwhile since December I have been holed up in Chiapas, Mexico preparing myself for the new adventures ahead.

I have learned a bit about the culture here. My Spanish language skills have improved some; but the more I learn, the more I understand how little I actually know.

Why Chiapas?

I chose Chiapas because the Covid level here is extremely low and luckily has been staying that way for the duration of my time here. My plan was to find a temporary home where I could fully return to fitness, continue learning Spanish, and find a partner to join me in my world tour. I really lucked out. Chiapas is a great place to live. It has a low cost of living and it’s a great place to explore.

My first stop was Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas. It is a city of 200K+ population, with shopping malls, fine hotels and bike shops. In December, the climate is reasonable for a gringo. I stayed for a month, which is long enough. Tuxtla would be quite warm for me in the Summer. I was already using the air conditioner at times in December and January.

In Tuxtla, I met Debora. But because she is a mother of a 3 year old girl, she was not about to join me on a world bike tour. However, she was interested in helping me meet my goals and has proven to be a trustworthy person. She speaks only Spanish, which is a plus for me. She has nicknamed me ‘Gringosaurio’, combination of Gringo and Dinosaurio, the Spanish word for dinosaur. I take no offense at this.

Her three year old daughter, Africa is a fearless ball of energy, who is currently taking English lessons and loves dinosaurs. The three of us have gone on great adventures together, which sometimes include other members of Debora’s family.

One of the first things I needed to get was a car. I tried unsuccessfully to rent one in Tuxtla. Apparently the tourist industry had quite collapsed there. I was able to make a reservation using Expedia, only to find at the address listed for the dealership, an empty store front. This happened twice before I decided it might be better to simply buy a car.

I spoke to my Cousin Rob Woudenberg, an auto mechanic. He convinced me the best vehicle for my needs was a Dodge Caravan or equivalent. With help from Debora, I bought a 2008 Chrysler Town and Country with a 4L engine, with 100,000 km (62,000 miles), for $5000. It has been a great investment. Though it does burn a lot of gas ~7km/L (20 mi/gal). Debora and I call it ‘Cerdo-San’. Cerdo is the Spanish word for pig.

Debora helped me register the car and patiently taught me the Mexican way of driving, which looks quite chaotic until you understand the rules. Some of the roads are quite skinny. One advantage of owning the vehicle is that there is no fee for putting a scratch in it.

I did clobber the right rear view mirror on a telephone pole in the first week. We got a body shop to repair it for under $25. No replacement parts needed. The guy just bent it back into shape using a cold chisel. Almost good as new.

With a minivan at our disposal, we explored. Chiapas has tropical jungles with wild monkeys, jaguars, and crocodiles. It has Mayan ruins. It has limestone caves, underground rivers, volcanoes, and indigenous tribal villages where they speak one of three or four different tribal languages. It has beautiful beaches on the Pacific Ocean with wild coconut palms everywhere.

San Cristobal de las Casas

In January, Debora introduced me to the town of San Cristobal de las Casas which is nestled over 2200m (7300 ft) above sea level. It’s 50km east of Tuxtla. There are several indigenous villages nearby. In fact this place became famous in the 1980s as part of the Zapatista rebellion.

I moved to San Cristobal in January and have been living here ever since. Back in January the weather was quite cool at night <10C (50F), and comfortable 20C (70F) in the day. One of the places I stayed had a fireplace which was a good way to keep it warm at night.

Being ever curious about life in Mexico, Debora lines up an opportunity for me to do some cooking with her mother, Flor. Flor is well known for her ability to make chicheron, deep fried pig skin. You may know this as pork rind, but the homemade stuff is way better than anything you may have had elsewhere.

I figured we’d make a small batch on the kitchen stove, I had no idea what was coming. Flor makes this on a large scale, and sells it to her neighbors.

First we went to the butcher shop and got half a pig skin (20kg). Then Flor lit a wood fire under the caldron and poured many liters of lard into it. She trained me on salting and cutting the skin.

The important thing is to rub salt into the flesh before cooking, and the lard needs to be the right temperature. Freshly made chicharon and beer is wonderful. Flor gave me first dibs on the batch. I took a kilogram home to share with my friends. The parts with some meat clinging to the flesh are clearly the best.

As we were cleaning up, the neighbors began queuing at the door. They could smell chicharon in the making and were wanting to buy some. The cool thing about chicharon is that it will be good for a week or so without any need of refrigeration. Since this, I have bought chicharon in the market a few times. It never comes close to Flor’s.

I think commercial chicharon starts with pig skin which has been meticulously cleaned of any fat or meat. This is a mistake.

Scott and Gillian

Gillian and Scott are from Portland OR. I met them in San Cristobal where they were renting an adjacent apartment to mine. We shared a balcony there. Over time we became friends, we went on expeditions together in Chiapas.

We have plans of meeting up in Paris this September and cycling out to Bretagne (Brittany) along the Paris-Brest Randonneuring route. It will take us a week to cover the same route that the randonneurs would do in the first day.

Once we get to Rennes, we will meet up with my good friends Joël and Irène, who will take us on a tour of Bretagne.

Oaxaca

Debora introduced me to her friend Mirjam, who was just returning from Stuttgart Germany where she was working as a physician to fight Covid-19. Together the three of us went to Oaxaca for a long weekend on the Atlantic beach. It gets pretty warm in July at sea level. But the water is cool. While there I met Nicole, a Swiss tourist who was also learning Spanish.

Faustino and Friends

Mirjam introduced me to her friend Faustino in San Cristobal. He teaches Tai Chi, and is also an avid biker. He lead many of us on an expedition to Chiconal, an active volcano in Chiapas.

We hiked down in to the lake in the volcano. There were vents under the lake which heated the water to near body temperature. We were thinking about swimming, but found it difficult to walk in the shallows without stepping on one of the many vents which were hot enough to cook an egg.

Together with Faustino, I have been on three bike trips near San Cristóbal. Each of them very special. Once I took my recumbent on a technical mountain bike trail. By luck, I managed to keep it upright.

My brother Ron

During my last week in Mexico, Ron came to visit. I got to play tour guide. Ron is not really my brother. He and I are Arden’s two grandfathers. It is much easier to just say brother, and it felt good to call him that.

Together with Debora, we went to visit the Mayan ruins and the jungle in Palenque. We visited San Juan Chamula, a town that has its own government, unconnected to Mexico. Ron and I also toured San Cristobal with Orestes, and learned about the Zapatista culture.

We had a bilingual wine and cheese party at Ron’s Airbnb. We sang and told stories. Ron even ate a roasted grasshopper. It was a fitting farewell to Chiapas.

On to Switzerland, and back to touring

August, 2021

Finally after more than a year off from touring, I have returned to the road. It feels good to be back. I am still in shape. The new hip is doing very well.

I started near the western border in Zurich and I am slowly progressing to the eastern border in Geneva. This is where Nicole lives, the woman I met on the beach in Oaxaca.

Wish me luck.

The Long Road Back to San Francisco

June 27, 2020

Summary:

The trip back was not at all simple. We said goodbye to Joel and Irene in Pak Soy, Laos. Days later, we crossed the boarder from Laos into VietNam by bicycle. There was hardship and lessons to be learned there. We stayed in big cities Vinh, and Hue in VietNam with luxurious hotels. Our plan was to return to Santiago to see Lucy’s son, Aldo get married. Then to go to California to attend my granddaughter, Arden’s first birthday.

We needed to make up for the time we lost in Laos. We took a bus south along the Vietnam coast to Hue to pack up and fly back to Santiago. This was a good move as it allowed time to deal with some unforeseen issues. Our first flight was on a small Vietnamese airline that just went bankrupt a day or two before we got there. The pandemic was taking a serious toll on the travel industry.

Flying west to Santiago Chile is somehow easier than the reverse trip. It takes about the same amount of time but does not consume as much of the calendar. We fortunately rented a furnished apartment in Santiago the day after we arrived, March 18.

The plan was to stay for the wedding in ten days. Things changed quickly in mid March. The wedding was postponed and the airport was closed, both due to the pandemic. We were going to be stuck in Santiago for a while. But this was not a hardship. I liked the apartment. For much of the time, I could cycle the nearly empty city streets of Santiago and go out into the foothills of the Andes. Lucy was eager to do all the chores and kept us well fed. All that and I was continuing my Spanish language education. The landlord was OK with us renting month to month. It was true that I would miss Arden’s first birthday party. But so did all of us. The party was postponed. The thing about a global pandemic is that everyone everywhere has the same issue.

I figured we were going to be fine until my visa expired in mid June. Then I could plead my case to the Chilean Immigration Bureau. But, I didn’t need to. In early May the airport reopened, there where flights to the US. I heard that Kaiser Permanente was restarting elective surgery and my surgeon was confident I could get my hip replaced in June. So, we packed up and flew to San Francisco on May 22.

Getting back to San Francisco did require a five hour layover in Miami. I was more worried about that than the eight hour flights in a plane only half full of passengers. Don’t ask me to reason through all this. I just felt contaminated when I got home. Lucy and I self quarantined for two weeks without symptoms.

Except for a few days visiting family in Indiana, we’ve been here ever since. Lucy has taken well to keeping my tiny apartment ship shape, and providing meals on a regular schedule. I swear I never told her she must do all the housework. She volunteered. A few days ago I woke to the smell of lemon scented Pledge being applied. Wow, furniture polish. What a concept.

And yes, I also got my hip replaced. On June 23 they did it as if it was an everyday thing. Because for this surgical team, it is practically. My surgeon, Neil Barucha M.D. does three a week on average. It only took ninety minutes in the OR. I took a cab home the same day. When I got home, I walked up the eleven steps to my apartment without assistance. It’s true that Lucy was there to help, if needed.

Now Lucy, my PT and I have a project to get my body used to functioning with it. Here I am at day four after surgery, with very little pain, and only minor swelling. I never needed the heavy duty pain meds they sent me home with. I walked a half mile on the street today without any pain, and could have easily done more. Lucy has experience as a nurses’s aid and is very interested in taking care of me. She regularly applies aloe vera, a natural anti-inflammatory to my hip.

She gets it that my plan is to abandon this apartment at some point and become homeless so to speak. Like our good friends Joel and Irene who joyously wander the planet for years at a time, I would like to make my bicycle my home for as long as I can. She would like to join me in this venture. I hope it works for us both.

Meanwhile I need to get this new hip up and running, then get my fitness back. Maybe by the time I am ready, the global pandemic will be running out of gas, or we can find a corner of the world where it has. New Zealand perhaps?

Route

Our complete journey through Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam is shown here. We spent most of this trip traveling as a foursome with Joel and Irene. Our paths diverge in Hue. We left Hue, Vietnam to fly home to Santiago. At this point Joel and Irene continued on to Japan before returning to France.

This Leg

In this chapter we describe our journey from Lak Sao to Hue, then our adventures upon returning home.

Lak Sao is a good place to visit. It’s a small town but there are several hotels and restaurants to serve the tourists. There is also a busy market place in town and nearby mountains which make a picturesque landscape.

Here in the mountains the roads are sketchy and the weather is changable. We used a truck/taxi to bring us here. The roads would have been a challenge on a good day. We arrived in a driving rain storm and made quick decisions on where to stay.

Our first hotel in Lak Sao

The weather was better in the morning, we went to explore the markets and the restaurants.

My big problem was that my process to get a visa to cross into Vietnam had stalled, and I didn’t realize it until the weekend. Chileans and EU citizens get a visa on arrival in Vietnam, meaning it is automatic. As a US citizen, I was the only member of the group struggling with this application process.

The application is made on-line to a private company. That company then presents your case to the Vietnamese government. It takes three business days before you get the visa emailed back as a PDF. If there is something wrong with the application, the company kicks it back. This happened to me and I didn’t catch it early enough.

Lak Sao is the last town before the remote boarder crossing. Joel and Irene rode on. Lucy and I stayed in town for an extra two days. We spent our time playing cards and searching for restaurants that serve western food. I actually like the local food here in Laos. But after some time you start missing the alternatives. Meanwhile Joel and Irene had crossed over into Vietnam, a more civilized country and were sending back images of the foods we missed most.

Lucy and I found a restaurant that advertized pizza. When we asked for this, the staff waved us off it. It was not until we came upon some bilinguals that we learned the pizza was not available because they were out of cheese. We convinced the staff to bring us a pizza without the cheese. This was the change we needed. I think we ordered this two nights in a row.

The boarder with Vietnam is a mountain ridge about 30km from Lak Sao. Joel and Irene reported that the climb was not difficult. However the ride down into Vietnam was on a very bad road surface. Also there are no services near the border. One has to ride some 30km further to find a rather nice hotel in the town of Tay Son. It would be a long day, but we were well rested. It should be no issue we thought.

The emailed visa finally arrived and we got our hotel in Lak Sao to print a copy for us. We left around noon. Normally this would be an issue, but it was not a hot day. We had a headwind that felt refreshing. Off we went with confidence high.

Local water buffalo

I didn’t notice until we were quite close to the border that the mountain ridge we were approaching had a large cloud settled onto it. The pass would be foggy. As we began the climb up, it started raining lightly. I figured we might get pretty wet up there and then have no place to stop and dry out.

As we got closer to the top, I realized that there were many eigthteen wheel trucks lined up waiting at the border. I pedalled around them, no one complained. I found out later that the reason for the back up was because the trucks were not descending due to low visibility.

We made it across the border without much delay, thankfully. I was worried about running out of daylight before we got back into civilization in Vietnam. The road down was errily quite. The large backlog of trucks were waiting up top for the visibility to get better.

We had the whole road to ourselves. We were nearly soaked and cold. The surface was deeply rutted with many switch backs going down. There were not good options here. I chose the least bad one. I convinced myself that we could get down out of this cloud and into warmer weather relatively quickly. We just needed to go slow enough to keep from crashing. We stayed warm by applying the brakes and pedalling at the same time, an old trick Dave Cox taught me years ago.

It worked. We made it down with the wheels underneath the whole way. We got below the cloud line before the truck traffic started coming by. My biggest problem was that I could not discuss this plan with Lucy. My Spanish was not up to the task, and we didn’t have time to waste. She was not happy, but we did make it to Tay Son in daylight.

There was a hotel there that Joel and Irene recommended. We checked in, showered, and put on dry clothes. Vietnam is quite civilized compared to Laos. We walked out onto the street to find someplace to eat.

Here for the first time I encountered significant push back for being a tourist. I didn’t understand it at first. Restaurants were refusing to seat us. Lucy figured it out before I did. The concern was that Western tourists without face masks are a risk for spreading the virus. We walked for some way before we found a restaurant that would take us. They served us in a room all by ourselves.

We ate well and then slept well. It was good to be back in civilization.

On to Vinh

It is ill advised to book your air travel well in advance. It is nearly the same price to book the flight two days before, and you have flexibility in case things change. I learned this the hard way. Here we where a few days behind schedule with a plane to catch in the following week. I either had to make expensive changes to our tickets or find a way to get us back on schedule.

Vinh is a nearby city on the coast. Certainly it would be possible to get a train or a bus south. Joel and Irene were a few days ahead of us and reported back on train service. They said, there are trains going south, but they will not take your bike on board. OK, a bus or a truck then? This is difficult to arrange without some knowledge of the language.

As we pedalled on to Vinh I had time to form a plan.

It turns out that when you are in a city where you do not know the language and have to find solutions to unusual problems, the thing you need is a bilingual person with your best interests at heart. Months ago in Bangkok, KJ did this for me on several occasions. She was amazing. Here in Vietnam, I don’t know anyone. What to do?

The solution is, book a room in a five star hotel. The concierge has your best interests at heart. He speaks English. He also has many local connections. The cost for this in Vietnam is not high. A five star hotel is $25/night. This also allowed me to pamper Lucy a little, after having such a rough border crossing.

Besides it is fun living in a hotel room a dozen stories up. Ordering too much food and eat.

The next day we bought face masks so that we could fit in. After considering our problem, the concierge got us bus tickets to Hue at a reasonable price. He said we had to meet the bus at 7am on a non descript corner. It was necessary that we have the bicycle broken out into two parts so that it would fit in the bus.

I had my doubts while waiting there. But the bus showed up just as planned. Three hours later, it dropped us on a non descript corner in Hue where we reassembled the bike and road off to find a hotel.

Hue, Vietnam

In Hue we had a new puzzle to solve. In three days we would need to ride our tandem to the airport, disassemble and pack it ready to fly. We also need to reduce the total number of bags, as airline per bag fees are exhorbitant. We are already schooled on the technique, however we still need to find the needed goods in a city where we don’t speak the language.

The solution? Simple, stay at a five star hotel. The concierge set us up with a cab driver and carefully explained to him that these things were to be found and purchased. We made many stops, the driver came into the store with us and did all the talking. We just showed the photos when needed.

The same method helped us solve an issue we had with our airline gone bankrupt. The right move is to go to the ticket office downtown and sit with a customer service rep in person. Don’t leave your seat until the problem is fixed.

Once our cab driver figured out where to buy the needed stuff. We passed that information along to Joel and Irene who would be flying out of this same city later in the week.

The coolest thing is creating a spectacle at the airport when you calmly disassemble your bike then wrap it up to take it with you on the plane. We had one Vietnamese guy so fascinated that he was actively working with us on it.

The big surprize was that Joel and Irene met us at the airport. They gave us some pointers on improving the wrap using free cardboard from local vendors in the airport. They have this improv style you will learn to love.

We actually got all the nitty gritty out of the way with enough time left over to enjoy the city of Hue. It is a tourist town. The tourism is way down because China is in quarantine. Lucy and I paid for a ride on a large boat in the Perfume river. We were the only passengers.

Santiago

I don’t remember which happened first nor when we figured it out. I remember three long flights and landing at Santiago Airport finally. We took a large taxi to the Sheraton hotel. It was late and there is no good bike route to the city from the Airport.

The next morning at breakfast, we noticed that things had changed. Breakfast was no longer at the outdoor buffet. I think we ate in the restaurant. There we planned out our day which involved getting an apartment for the less than two weeks. Lucy was to meet with her son Aldo to get some of the things he was holding for her.

That’s right. Lucy did not keep her apartment in Santiago. When we left in January, she had reduced her belongings down to what would fit in a pannier, and a few suitcases that her son stored for her. The plan was to reunite with that stash and prepare a plan for the next leg of the trip in San Francisco.

We were using a real estate broker in Santiago to line up furnished apartments for us to consider. Lucy was in charge of picking the apartment. She used this same service in December to find the place we used then. It was a good place. The business manager spoke fluent English, so it was easy for me to discuss details of financing.

We got a message that the first apartment on the list fell through. The landlord cancelled the meeting. We patched together a plan to split up and meet at the second choice. It was later in the day. Lucy figured she had time to go see her son, Aldo and take a cab to meet me there.

Lucy was delayed. I met the landlord, letting her know that my Spanish is not really all there. We muddled through the tour. I liked the place. It was a modern two bedroom apartment on the eighteenth floor with a balcony overlooking a nice section of town.

It was getting late. There was some urgency which was cleared up with a phone call to Pia, the bilingual real estate manager we were using. She explained that her business office was closing and we needed to decide to take the deal or wait till Monday when they reopenned. I decided to take it without Lucy there to ask the better questions. It was mostly a good decision.

View from our balcony on the eighteenth floor

We slept there that night with the tandem still in two pieces parked out on the balcony. It sat there for about a month unused. The thing we didn’t figure on, the assembled tandem is too large to fit in the elevator. The only way to get it down to the ground floor was in two pieces. This was a lot of work for a daily bike ride. We were not permitted to store a bicycle in the underground parking unless we had a long term rental agreement.

We bought a cheap stationary rental bike from the local department store to fill our short term exercise needs. We made regular use of it until we wore it out.

I found that if it was asked to dissipate over 200W for more than a few minutes, It would start making funny noises until it stopped offering resistance at all. I considered debugging it myself, but Lucy correctly pointed out that I would certainly void the warranty in so doing. She got a full refund from the department store. We considered buying a more substantial model but there was suddenly very few in stock.

Our stationary bike on the balcony.

We found out that Aldo and Pia were putting off their wedding party until it was safe to have a large gathering. We also were notified that all flights out of Santiago were cancelled, and the airport was effectively closed. The landlord was happy to have us extend our stay.

I rented a mountain bike from my friend, Carlos and rode it out into the foothills on days when I could. In April and May the Chilean government was locking things down periodically. I also found that my hip complained a lot more now.

Lucy was getting exercise by walking the city streets. Eventually she figured out that by virtue of our extended stay we were permitted to keep the tandem in the basement garage. We assembled it and test rode it around the apartment on level streets. In the first kilometer, I realized something had changed. This bike was now quite painful for my hip. I was not able to blame this on a misadjustement. The bike was set up exactly as Dana had adjusted it in Bangkok, thousands of kilometers ago. My guess is that it was my hip that was changing.

I got in touch with my surgeon, Neil Barucha in San Francisco. He thought his department would be re-opening up for elective surgery some time in June and that he would like to replace my hip, as we had proposed back in Spring of 2019. I was now motivated to make this happen.

The Santiago airport openned with flights to the US in early May. Fortunately for us, we did Lucy’s visa paperwork months ago, before all the pandemic started along with the closing of borders to the US. We contacted the US Embassy in Chile and in the US. We never got a clear answer on whether Lucy would have trouble getting into the US as a Chilean citizen. All we got was vague references to the Department of Homeland Security website.

I thought maybe no one knows. Maybe it all comes down to the immigration official in the Miami Airport? Maybe if you get the wrong guy on the wrong day, you’re screwed and there is no rules. At every border crossing I have done in the last year, I found it easy to get clear on what is required with a single visit to the Embassy website for that country.

Damn the torpedoes!

We booked flights, we packed up the bikes in our apartment this time, as there are no good bike routes to the airport in Santiago. We could not arrange a truck to the airport. When the sedan taxi showed up Lucy assured me we could strap the bikes on the roof.

“We did this many times in Asia. It also works in Chile”, she assured me. I explained to the driver that at freeway speeds the updraft on the leading edge of the package would be strong. Ok, my Spanish is really not that good. I said something like “With much speed there would be much wind. The bike will be lifted like this” as I pushed up on the packaging to demonstrate.

He understood me and fetched a significant strap system from the trunk. The strap went over the bikes and hooked onto the undercarriage of the car. He winched it taught. I was satisfied it would be stable. It was

It turns out things went smoothly in Miami. US Immigration stamped Lucy’s passport without a second thought. Thus giving her ninety days here in the United States. We will have to form a plan for mid August when her visa expires.

Much will depend on how my hip is doing and the state of the pandemic then. I have already promised to visit my sister and her husband for Thanksgiving. It would be great if Lucy could be there too. I think we can arrange a visa run in August to a foreign country, then return to the US together for another ninety days. There are many possible outcomes with this plan. We hope for the best.

Home again in San Francisco

It really is amazing to be able to cross three continents in three connecting flights and get it all done in less than a day. When we finally arrived at my apartment, I did not recognize the lock on the outside door. I had to call my neighbor to let me in. Apparently we got a new landlord recently. No problem, I have friends amongst my neighbors.

Here in San Francisco, I want to show Lucy so many things without risking exposure to the virus.

Exploring San Francisco Bay Area

Lucy meets my cycling group in Woodside, CA
GoCar is a guided tour conducted by a computer with GPS. It gives real time audio description of the surroundings
Lucy’s Birthday party at the home of Robin and Phil in Montara
Driving south on the Penninsula
Visit with my granddaughter Arden; her parents, Carina and Mark; and their parents Ron and Nancy

Visiting Mom in Lafayette, Indiana

Hip Replacement Surgery, San Francisco, June 23,2020

This is how I used to walk
This is how I walk now
Now I need to get this hip up to speed and lose the 15 pounds (7Kg) that I gained since March.
Emily’s happily ever after moment at Nancee’s farm in Massachusetts