23 June 2012

Alright, two years have passed since the last posting.

I will have to rewind a bit here... back through the dry and sandy rolling hills of the western Sahara with their windy marbling, through the snow capped Atlas mountains, the lowland olive orchards, along the winding backroads of Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar to the south of Spain. Zahara. A small town on the south western coastline. Susan and I have set up our tent on a patch of grass right above the beach. I am preparing dinner while Susan disappears somewhere to take a leak. She returns running – grinning- and waves a small white and blue (pee-covered) stripe into my face. Pregnant!!!

Back in the desert.

Remember how Susan blew out her rear rim? The Truck filled with tons of sulfuric acid that took us to Dakhla, the tiny oasis on the southern tip of Western Sahara? Great spot for kite-surfing. Unfortunately also for the international fishing fleet. They fish everything they cannot find anymore in European waters. The fish population up there has long been exhausted. Well then - let's rape the African coast with our kilometer long nets. Then truck the whole stuff through the Sahara in big reefer trucks and drain out the fish blood on the road side every couple hundred miles. Susan and I have been wondering for quite a while why every so often we stumble upon a red puddle on the pavement that has a very intense fishy smell. What is left after the Europeans get all that tropical stuff, the brilliantly white fish fillets and after the Japanese buy all the tuna and octopus? Sardines for the Moroccans. That's what you find on the local market. Sardines.
And then: tropical gardens in Dakhla. Some European bought a whole lot of arid land and thought himself brilliant by drilling wells into the aquifer. S/he then planted melons, cantaloupes and tomatoes that thrive in the sunny climate. And why not ship those through the desert, too? More reefer trucks racing up and down the west coast of Africa, destination: European market. Well done. Let's give the scraps to the locals. And the aquifer? Slowly bleeding empty. Water that has accumulated for millions of years and served a small local fishing population in Africa. Soon there is nothing left of it. Where will the locals go when there is no more water? Europe, maybe? Or will they rather end up in inhumane immigrant camps like Lampedusa in Italy or just drown trying to get there like so many others?
Please folks - stop buying tomatoes and cantaloupes in the middle of the winter. Shop local. Shop seasonal. For that matter, plant your own small garden. Your small lot will not feed you for the entire year but it sure gives you some sense of what's going on in the plant world (and what's going wrong in your supermarket).

After Dakhla we continue south with the winds. One evening we arrive at a remote gas station (the only building for many kilometers) and just as we arrive a big commercial truck pulls up and a police officer jumps out. He hurries right towards us and shouts some commands. Turns out he was sent to find us. He urges us to spend the night at the gas station. We are on high thug-alert. Who the … is this clown? When we say we will push on further down the road he makes a hasty phone call and the army commander from the nearby control post races over in a jeep. Ok. We now are impressed! They are either for real or a very sophisticated network of thugs. Army-dude forbids us to keep going further and firmly (but politely) insists that we sleep at the gas station. They have a small prayer room that we can use for that purpose. Susan and I are baffled but we don't seem to have many options. We push the bikes into the prayer room. The Army commander and the police man disappear in their jeep and we sit alone in the prayer room without prayer.

We kind of expect someone to come and mug us later in the night. So I find myself a reasonably big chunk of wood to act as a club and barricade the door shut with my ratchet straps. But the only people who show up are some travelers who would like to use the room for their prayers and then keep driving. Once again, we fall for our western paranoia and mistake well meant advice for mischief. That sure leaves another karmic dent...

The next morning, we depart from the gas station at the first light of day. The distance to the next place with water will be precisely 160 kilometers (100+ miles) and there is not a single dwelling in between. Traffic is limited, too. From where we are now the road leads right through No Man's Land into Mauritania.

Ah, Mauritania. When we inquire about traveling into Mauritania, the German embassy in Rabat (Morocco) is immediately up in arms. If we know that Mauritania is on the United States terrorism list? Have we not heard of the murder? Yes we have heard all that. And then? Do we not go to New York anymore because in 2008 someone was shot in some alley in Manhattan? Do we not visit Berlin anymore because someone snorted some coke in some dance club in 2007? Do we not travel to Washington DC anymore because it's full of thugs and liars and lobbyists? The lady at the embassy then tried it with guilt: if we are kidnapped then the German and American taxpayers have to bear the burden of our rescue. WHAT?! Honestly, who has lost their mind here? That much for seeking advice at the embassy. When we arrived at the Mauritanian embassy there is a long line of travelers from all over the world applying for a visa. We have ours later the same day.

After an epic 100+ mile ride through another wonderful desert landscape we make the last gas station before the Mauritanian border. The place has a feel like the desert city in Star Wars just short of the three-headed clarinettist and the droids and robots. Instead of spaceships there are a bunch of dilapidated trucks full of merchandise headed for the border. The hotel keeper 1s a weirdo but it's the only hotel for 100+ miles in all directions. The rooms are hot and there (obviously) is no air con, not even for a surcharge. In the back of the hotel, two caterpillars are tearing down a building and dig some kind of canalization system. Bagga-bagga-bagga-boom! The noise is mind-boggling and does not stop until 10pm in the night despite the hotel manager's continuous assurances that the noise will stop any minute now.

And then we finally hit No Mans Land. The tarmac ends, some soldier stamps your passport and you are out in the middle of no man's land. The place is plastered with abandoned vehicles. There are people dealing with all kind of stuff, money changers offer their services and countless vehicles try to maneuver over hot-baked sand tracks and rocks from one border to the other. The distance as the crow flies is about 4 kilometers but the tracks wind left and right and vehicles traverse wherever the conditions permit. There is no government here so there is no law. But everything seems to be somewhat guided by invisible rules. Everybody helps everybody out. Live and let live. We heard stories about the night-times, though. But we have chosen to avoid the time from dusk 'till dawn as have probably all those who tell the stories. So what really happens in the dark is speculation, left to our ever-paranoid minds. The fox and the hare might actually be friends... ever heard of Schroedinger's cat?

When we emerge from another sand-hole we see a small van stuck in deep sand, wheels spinning. The van is loaded top to bottom with chicks. The most scurrilous thing. Who expects the desert to go vroom-cheep-cheep-cheep-vroom-cheep-cheep-cheep? We rush over and help pushing the mobile chicken oven. The guys thank us and race off towards the border. We follow in their tracks. At the Mauritanian border someone stamps our passports and we again hit tarmac. The most sleek, perfect, black tarmac! After a kilometer or so the small chick-van catches up with us and the window winds down. The passenger tosses two bananas out the window and shouts “shook-ran!” (meaning “thank you!” in arabic). We both grin and decide that if No Man's Land had a flag it surely would have a chick and a banana on it.

From the border it is only an afternoon's ride to the coastal city of Nouadhibou where we are greeted by hundreds of camel mamas and their offspring. We head straight for the center and find a small hostel. After a shower and a couple hours of sleep we head out for dinner. The most common food here is Cheb – greasy fried rice topped with a chunk of cabbage, pumpkin, carrot, eggplant and king-mackerel. Susan and I love it instantaneously! We stick our hands into the oily rice and eat and eat and eat. Cheb stays the main diet for most of the trip through Mauritania and even today I sometimes dream of a portion of that simple but wonderful stuff. After three days of rest we set out again for the hottest part of the desert. Our water reserves replenished and extended with several plastic bottles – we now carry about 15 liters at all times and drink like cows. Susan, despite being pregnant never feels sick or drowsy. Well, we get lots of exercise and eat and drink like champions. The trip from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott is spectacular and uneventful at the same time. The landscape changes often, we have crazy sandstorms with side winds strong enough to push one off the road. We sleep in a camel herder's house, in another gas station, in a small hostel (the rooms about 4 square meters size (36sqft). Everybody in Mauritania is friendly and welcoming and assures us that we need not be scared of any terrorists, simply because there aren't any. For a short section of the road we receive a temporary police escort who just wants to make sure we are alright.

The days are now so hot that we set out very early in the mornings and take some rest during the hottest part of the day. Then we resume riding in the late afternoon and ride until nightfall. Despite the heat and intense sun we never get sunburned, though. It's all about covering up, drinking sufficient fluids and being smart about avoiding the hottest part of the day. But it is hot. So hot that Susan once opens a milk carton that we find at a roadside inn and starts to fan the cool air into her face by repeatedly squeezing the carton! Ha!

After another 4 days we arrive in Nouakchott tired and beaten by the sand storms but in good spirits. Nouakchott! What a place! Originally designed for a population of a few thousand it now is home to more than a million! The road conditions are terrible.– sand everywhere. Or maybe it would be better to say that there are hardly and roads at all. The city has a weird layout that is not very intuitive and we have trouble finding the small hostel we selected from the little choice of option. The place is close to the city center and has a cozy courtyard. A big part of it is being remodeled at the time but we don't care much for anything as long as we have the basics: a shower and a bed. Oh, what a blissful feeling to let cool water run over your skin and tuck yourself into washed linens! We bask for three days and eat at the local market (including chocolate, cereal, pizza and ice cream!) and re-supply. We are in the middle of the Sahara desert and Nouakchott becomes our temporary paradise. A stinky, ugly, noisy, sandy gem. But nevertheless – a gem.

After filling our tanks with calories and our muscles with refreshing sleep we hit the road again. Back into the desert - south and always south.

The road to the Senegalese border is more densely populated than the north and the road conditions deteriorate. There are cracks all across the tarmac every meter and we bob up and down in our seats for kilometers. Big baobab trees are now scattered all over the countryside. They look like creatures from a fairytale – uprooted trees stuck back into the dirt upside down by a giant troll! Some of the baobabs' trunks are so enormous that it takes Susan 28 paces to circumvent them. Others are hollow and would make a decent home for two campers for the night.
We cross the Mauritanian-Senegalese border at Rosso. This presented itself as an adventure all by itself. In fact, if you were just hunting for a great quirky thing to happen to you that will make you grin every time you remember it, then you might as well travel directly to Rosso, cross the border and travel back home. We cannot say that we had not been warned. Numerous travelers had told us about Rosso and its bustle, the corruption, even violent scenes when people did not want to fork over bribes. We cannot claim that we had not been properly warned. But I guess we simply thought “Meh!”

Having worked in various African and Asian countries where such phenomenons are part of everyday life – we considered ourselves able to cope with Rosso.

Rolling into rosso, we meet a police officer (or probably: a fake police officer) who inquires about our plans to leave the country and then tells us that we should ask for Michael at the border. We don’t give much of a crap for what he tells us and keep going. As we near the border we have trouble locating the place. Usually there is a giant gate, flags, fences, soldiers... here, nothing but a bustling square surrounded with houses. As we stand and gaze like perfect prey in the savanna, a guy walks over and presents himself as Michael. Turns out we didn't have to find him – he found us.

Michael was young and sleazy. And: he had a mobile phone with headphones. In Mauritania, you don't have a mobile phone with headphones. Unless you earned it. For example by squeezing tourists as a tout. So the anti-tout alarm bell in my head goes off right away as he asks me for our passports. He will have them stamped and we only have to pay a modest amount of several thousand Ouija. I prefer to keep the passports to myself and follow him into a shop. A shop! He asks me to give the passports to the shop owner. I look at Michael and smile and know that this is a bunch of BS. Firstly you never have to pay ANYTHING to cross an international border (if not for a visa) and secondly, the border folks usually have guns and a stare instead of selling toothpaste and local candy. So Michael takes my hand and leads me into the next shop and tried his luck again. My smile turns into a grin as we approach shop number three and I simply turn around to make my way back to Susan, who by this time is surrounded with her own group of touts and money changers. Change your money here, you can't do it in Senegal! Back at the bikes (that Susan never left out of her view) we start pushing towards a big green unmarked gate that is the closest thing to what a border could look like. Michael by now has caught up with me and demands 500 Ouija for bringing us through the gate. The gate opens as we approach and a police man behind the gate swats at numerous touts as to keep them from entering. He lets us pass but shoves his hand directly into Michael's face as he attempts to pass with us. And there it is: the border. For some seconds we have calm and see the ferry dock of the old and shabby boat that will bring us across the river to Senegal. To the left are customs and police. This is where you get your exit stamp. Free of charge.

After a couple minutes, new touts are back. They seem to be somewhat approved touts (for a fee to the border police, I guess) and they start selling us anything and everything and offer money exchange (they won't take your Ouija in Senegal!). Alright, we change currency. I had heard about the Ouija being one of those currencies (with the Mongolian and north Korean currencies) that nobody will touch outside of the countries borders. We buy a ticket for the ferry and have to buy an extra ticket for each bicycle. We are certain we got cheated on that one but that was only 400 Ouija. On the boat – a rusty little ferry that holds maybe four to six vehicles and hundreds of passengers we get no break from the hassling. Money changers keep offering their services and a young guy tries to sell us beignets (deep fried pancakes) for 200 Ouija a piece. I laugh, tell him that I know the local price and offer him 200 Ouija for 10 pieces. He agrees. Susan is happy. Pancakes are just what she needed. We smile and are excited to enter a new country. New people, new roads, new foods, new weather, new animals, new stories. And please, please, please - NO MORE TOUTS! When the ferry hits the dock everything moves forward. We push the bikes down the ramp and are immediately surrounded with people. New touts. Change your Ouija here! (Ahem...) Give me your passports! Do you need a hotel? Do you need a minibus (We have bikes...?!)... and so on. The border police ask for a bribe, no thank you, someone tries to sell us insurance, no thank you, someone tries to hold on to Susan's bike (SWAT! Bad idea...) and right in front of the exit a guy in a police uniform asks us to pay the “Municipal tax”. I almost falter but Susan just starts to laugh and gives me a push: “Keep walking!” she says. And I do. Yeah, right, municipal tax.

We ride to St. Louis and from there south to Dakar. Susan is now in her 5th month of pregnancy and we decide to fly to the United States to surprise her parents with the news. The ride into Dakar is chaotic at best. On top of the crazy traffic Susan's freewheel ratchet somehow clogs up and her chain spins without propelling the bike forward at all. With several heavy duty zip ties I attach the cassette directly to the spokes and tell Susan that she now has a fixie setup. NO MORE FREEWHEELING. She now has to ride like this through the heavy Dakar traffic and also from JFK in New York all the way into Manhattan until we find a bike store to replace her rear hub. After that all is easy. We roll through New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia to western Maryland and arrive at Susan's parent's place at the end of June 2010.

The coming two years we spend in Portland, Oregon. In early December, at home in our new hometown, Susan gives birth to our wonderful son Aziz Elliott who from then on fills our lives with joy, cloth diapers, sleepless nights, books about breastfeeding, coffee and more coffee, walks to the playground, more joy, homemade baby food, more cloth diapers, wonderful new friends that we meet at the playground or library, books about teething, a cargobike with baby seat, OMSI, much more joy, first baby sounds, books about walking, many more sleepless nights, baby sign language, more walks/rides to the playground, much more coffee, first steps, more cloth diapers. wonderful afternoons with our new friends and their babies...

 Portland meanwhile fills our lives with friendly, creative weirdos, freeboxes, organic vegetables, rain, sun, rain, rain, rain, food-carts, pasture raised eggs, rain, sun, rain, rain, rain, bicycle-shops, bicycle-rides, bicycle-friends, bicycle-sunday-parkways, bicycle-cookouts, rain, sun, rain, rain and rain. It is good. It is different. It surely is different from the rest of the United States, different from the all so common commonsenseless-patriotic-BS-nonjudgemental-prozac-addicted-4x4-mall-and-drive-through-mentality. If you don't understand what I am ranting about, it might be time to consider a life style change. Plus, in any case, you should probably stop going to the mall, rethink your gadget-shopping addiction, f..k facebook, start eating real food and drink full fat milk!

Oh, and hey Portlanders – your city is NOT a public transportation heaven. And not the funkiest bicycle town either... it might as well be the best place to be in the United States, but honestly – ever been to Amsterdam, Berlin or Copenhagen?

Well then, back to our life in Portland. Susan works a bunch of different jobs while I stay home with Aziz and the kitchen pots and desperately try to hang on to my sanity. At some point in time I suggest buying a sailboat so we can just leave right then and there, then we downgrade to a used canoe so we can paddle down the Missouri and Mississippi all the way to New Orleans for the summer. But in the end we decide to hit the road again on two wheels.
In June 2012 (precisely two years after we arrived) we are back at Susan's parents house in Maryland to continue the globe-trip. Aziz has his own little baby-bike-trailer (Susan will pull this one) and I add a B.O.B. Trailer to my bike to haul the extra supplies and the bigger (much bigger!) tent.
And so we go again. We plan to ride north to Niagara Falls where we will cross into Canada. We will then head west along the Trans-Canada-Highway, destination Vancouver, BC on the west-coast. May the wheels hum and the winds be kind to us. And may the bears and mosquitoes (but most importantly the first) always stay about a yard away.
Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is only fiction. The rest of our life starts today.  

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