5 November 2009

Spain to Portugal

After my return from the Democratic Republic of Congo I fly back to Spain where I meet Susan and her bicycle. The weather proves to be moody in late October and we soon find ourselves cycling in pouring rain and dense fog.
The temperatures have also dropped and we are happy to have packed gloves and warm jackets and often seek shelter in a small bar or cafe to warm up. Our trip takes us southwest of Santiago into the Canyon de Sil, a magnificent gorge (when you have the chance to see it...).

In Galicia one can still see lots of old grain storages built from stone and local wood with slated roofs. They are elevated on pillars to prevent rodents from attacking the harvest. During another heavy rainfall we luckily find a birdwatching tower on a riverside to stay for the night and dry our clothes and the thoroughly soaked tent. There are chestnut trees all over the place... everybody is harvesting the big brown nuts which are then roasted or steamed. The forests are also full of mushrooms and the branches of the fruit trees heavy with unpicked fruit.

Along the Mino river we make our way to Portugal through a mountainous region and head for the Atlantic ocean. We follow the wide sandy beaches until we reach Porto, capital of the famous port wine. The architecture here in Portugal features lots of tilework. Churches are sometimes fully decorated with beautiful blue and white tile paintings. Houses are less fancyfull but still clearly stand out. They often have some kind of kitchen-sink atmosphere to me. But still, it's a very nice change to the usual cement walls in other countries.

From Porto we head further south along the coast towards Lisbon and hit more rainy weather. Time is running short as we are scheduled to fly to Chad for Medecins Sans Frontieres once more. So we stop this leg of the trip in a smaller place called Leiria, dry our stuff and park the bicycles with a nice man who promises to keep them safe until we return in a few months...

30 August 2009

Medecins Sans Frontieres DRC

At Santiago de Compostela my bicycle gets parked for 6 weeks while I fly to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to work once more for Medecins Sans Frontieres.

In the east of DRC, close to the Rwandese border, the Congolese army carries out a military offensive. Its aim is to drive the rebel movement FDLR out of their hideout in a national parc. The action leads to massive deplacement of civilians who flee the fighting and pilfering of their villages. 10km behind the frontline Medecins Sans Frontieres supports several rural health centres with drugs, medical materials and therapeutic food to cope with the population influx.

My role is to coordinate the logistics activities - quite a challenging task when there are no real roads, no phones, only feeble electricity and nothing to purchase on the local market. The area we work in features several mines for gold, diamonds as well as coltan (a rare material used for the production of mobile phones, GPS, DVD players, computers etc.). The raw materials are exported with old russian Antonov-12 planes that bring beer, fuel and cheap Chinese consumer goods in return.
I am told that the price of one kilogram of raw coltan is about 3 USD when sold by the miners. The apparent world market price for one kilogram of coltan powder is currently higher than 500 USD!

Just in case you were shocked by news (or films) about blood diamonds - take a good look at your electronics goods and think before you buy your next iPhone just because your old one has a scratch or not the latest software gadgets...

Santiago de Compostella

It is done. After a painful ride through never ending hills of the provinces of Cantabria, Asturias and finally Galicia I reach Santiago de Compostella with its dozens of churches and convents. Once the most popular Christian pilgrim destination (apparently surpassing even Rome and Jerusalem in the 11th to 13th century) it still bustles with religious pilgrims as well as non-religous long-distance hikers who just use the trail as an intinerary for their travel. The pilgrim trail is really not just one single trail but consists of a vast network of trails that all converge at Santiago. Some of the trails originating as far as Norway or southern Italy... The road entering Santiago is literally packed with "packed" people, many carrying a scallop shell and a wooden stick as signs of identification.
Throughout the city the shell - the symbol of St. James - appears everywhere. Santiago is a beautiful town well worth visiting. The historic center is free of motorized traffic and thus a very pleasant experience. It is easy to get lost in it maze of stone plated narrow alleyways...
Everywhere jolly (but often limping) people who just finished the trail. In earlier times (maybe still) pilgrims used to burn their clothes on the roof of the cathedral as a symbolic act that their sins have been washed away and that a new life is about to begin.
Honestly, when I smell my own clothes and take a closer look at them it feels like it's high time to do so as well. And even if it doesn't wash away sins, a good shower is definitely up high on my to-do-list :)

26 August 2009

Rainy Asturias

From Bilbao I follow the coast westbound. This is the region where the famous "Camino de Santiago", a trans-European pilgrim trail leads its last few hundred kilometers to the city of Santiago de Compostella.
The coast is heavy on the nerves: a continuous up and down and up and down and up and down - perfect for Zen-Buddists (enjoy the now...)
For long distance cyclists it is pure torture to drag your combined 120 kilogramms up a steep hill and then run it down on the other side just to find yourself in a new valley and thus at the bottom of a new hill to climb. This continues forever!
At times I become so frustrated with the road engineering that I am happy I don't carry a firearm and there are presently no Spanish road engineers around. Anyone seen the movie "Falling Down"?

On top of my trouble it starts raining. A strong continuous drizzle. Too wet to not use the waterproof gear but too warm to not sweat like a madman when wearing it. My misery is complete :)
Or so I think. I forgot the worst: headwind. But be assured. I had it. And strong. And continuously.

Another problem with cycling along this pilgrim trail is that everyone thinks you are a pilgrim. I mean I don't mind all the freaks that walk and hike and cycle this path but please - could you stop looking at me as if I am one of you?!

Santiago de Compostella. It's still 2-3 days until I shall reach you. Up and down and up and down. The rain stopped but the headwind continues. I will make it. I will make it.


From the "Lost Mountain" my path leads once more across the Pyrenees into France and then (again across a pass...) right back into Spain. I arrive in the bordertown of Irun which turns out to be a shopping heaven for the French to purchase cigarettes, alcohol and fuel in cheaper Spain. Horrid place. Made for motorized traffic and cheap people.
But there is no other road going to the coast and that's where I am headed.
After 2 days in San Sebastian (nice, touristy, overbooked hostels - I end up sleeping on the beach two times to be woken up by cops the next morning...) my way continues along the coast to the city of Bilbao.
Bilbao has gained worldwide fame because of its Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Ghery (spelling might be wrong but then again - names are for gravestones). The roof of the museum is made of titanium. The story I heard about the titanium is that it was available when Russia reduced its nuclear warheads and lots of rockets (made of titanium) became redundant. apparently at that time even spates and pickaxes were available in titanium because they didn't know what to do with it otherwise. Rockets were (for once) not in demand...
The story might not be true but I like it. Sadly there haven't been many times lately where titanium became abundantly available.

However, the Guggenheim is alright but to my taste nothing fancy. There is a small museum in the black forest (Vitra Design Museum - also designed by Gehry and without titanium) that I like much better.
The rest of Bilbao (excluding a fancy waterfront along the river) is more or less a dump. BUT: the people of Bilbao know to ignore this and anyway, it's fiesta time! The day I arrive in Bilbao, its population has been on a binge for an entire week!!! The party started on August 15 and lasts a full week. There are drunk people everywhere, not only punks with their dogs but regular people. All kind of social and political groups set up tents and serve food and alcohol literally 24/7. So since I don't know where to leave my bicycle I just leave it behind one of the beer counters and head off to buy beer.
I squat opposite of this inventive group of beggars (see picture below). They give you different options for your donation: "booze", "cigarettes", "the dogs" or a donation boy for all those who are "not yet sure for wich purpose" the donation should be used...

The party lasts all night and the next day I leave Bilbao with a slight hangover. The Guggenheim still doesn't look fancier but teh sun is shining and I am on the road direction Santander...
(Picture above: my bicycle in front of the oh-so-fancy Guggenheim titanium facade)

20 August 2009

Where do the children play?

Well I think it's fine, building jumbo planes.
Or taking a ride on a cosmic train.
Switch on summer from a slot machine.
Yes, get what you want to if you want, 'cause you can get anything.

I know we've come a long way,
We're changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?

Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass.
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas.
And you make them long, and you make them tough.
But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can't get off.

Oh, I know we've come a long way,
We're changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?

Well you've cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air.
But will you keep on building higher
'til there's no more room up there?
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?
Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?

I know we've come a long way,
We're changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?

(Cat Stevens)

...no comment...

18 August 2009

Hiking up the "Lost Mountain"

Monte Perdido - the "Lost Mountain", with its 3355 meter high peak is situated on the border between Spain and France. I kind of stumble upon it when passing by a side valley. Suddenly it says something about a national parc and I just follow the signs... I kind of felt like hiking a bit anyway, so why not here?

The mountain is not so lost after all. Thousands of tourists come to "Odessa and Monte Perdido National Parc" every day. But only a couple of hundred (!) make it to the top. It isn't terribly difficult and I doubt that people really have much of an altitude effect (as warned of in th Lonely Planet guidebook).
The effect is rather nice: you walk up to the top and... look around 360 degrees :)
Monte Perdido is the third highest peak in the Pyrenees and so your view is splendid.

On the way up one passes through the magnificent Odessa Valley with a real beautiful waterfall. The refuge at 2200m altitude is fully booked and another 100 odd tents are set up all around it. I didn't bring my tent all the way up, only my sleeping bag and mat - well, I could just hope for no rain. During the day there is a thunderstorm. Not a good sign. But luckily the sky clears and I sleep under a tent of thousands of stars!