Monday, February 27, 2006

This post may get updated as info is forthcoming.

Visa requirements: With EU passport (have Italian), none required for Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Slovak Republic (but only 30 days stay as opposed to 90 if from Italy--don't care since only passing through by Bratislava for a day or two.), Romania, Bulgaria. For Turkey need sticker visa with Italian passport (get at border crossing for a fee). With Mexican passport, info is harder to find, but pretty much same as above (no visa required through Schengen countries) except Slovak Republic (needs visa). So, make sure Italian passport current. Mine expires in November. Went to consulate in San Francisco about a week ago to get it renewed, since presumably could still be bike-tripping in September, too close to passport expiry. Consulate to my surprise said passport will take approximately one month. Yikes! Hope it is done before departure date!

Health/travel insurance: Must look into. Would suck to be in accident or get sick with no money.

Storage: Rented 5x11ft storage space in nearby Cupertino for about 60 bucks a month. Place is fairly clean and very secure. Will give set of keys to a couple of friends in case need stuff sent, but plan is to come back to US after trip to retrieve/send stuff to permanent address afterwards. Storage space will keep all books, clothes, and assorted belongings, junk and other impedimenta accumulated during the past 13 years of U.S. living.

Bill paying and mail forwarding: Set up online bill pay. Otherwise too painful and risky by check while travelling. Bank account stays here, ATMs and credit cards accepted everywhere in E.U. Snail mail forwarding to home in Mexico impractical: mail takes 1 month or more. So will ask local friend to keep and open my mail for me, and notify of important matters via email, but volume of mail should be reduced since no longer paying for usual bills like electricity, phone, etc, and the still-existing bills (credit card and tail end of college loan) taken care of over the web.

Travel companions: Emailed Patrick, a British dude who is cycling to Singapore from his home in London (found him through a post of his on the biking forums of Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree site). It appears he will be in the Berlin area around the same time I am, with plans to go from there to Istanbul also at around the same time. However, his plans appear to involve a route that is highly orthogonal to mine, passing through Poland and several of the Balkan states...this may be a problem. At any rate, we are in touch. Hoping to also possibly pick up people along the way, and trying to convince brother and a friend or two to join me at least for the Eastern Europe part of the trip, thus buying them a little bit of time for deciding and raising money if necessary.

Communications: Email of course is preferred mode. But will take cell phone. A good friend from work kindly offered to lend me his GSM900 phone (I'm a technophobe so I don't own a mobile myself), and all I need to do is supply the pertinent SIM card. Roaming fees are outrageous in Europe (around 1 Euro a minute!) so the plan is to buy the prepaid SIM cards at each country I arrive at and use that for the duration of the travel through that country. Cell phone is substituting for the "shotgun" he suggested for Nebraska (see prior post here), namely, quick access to emergency assistance, and chit-chat with friends if I happen to get terribly lonely (another emergency of sorts ;P). Routinary phone calls to home will be done on landline (cheaper), prepaid calling cards exist everywhere.

Maps and Guides: Buy off the web and/or local bookstore. Maps need to be scale 1:300,000 or less to show minor roads. Favorite map company is the Reise und Verkehrsverlag which is also known as the American Map Company in the U.S. Got the Spain/Portugal road atlas a few days ago. Rare edition, had a bit of trouble finding. Spain looks a bit sparser (in terms of proximity of villages) and hillier than I thought. More yikes.

Friendly eyes: Emailed old college friends and asked brother to email his to see who is in Europe and can provide an address for visit, stay, or mail delivery. Have brother's friend in Berlin, have friend's family in Budapest and Bucharest, family of close friend in Istanbul, friend of brother in Sofia (though probably won't be passing through that city, at least a friendly person in the country is good to have for emergencies), and friend of friend of family in Vienna. Still looking for people in Spain and Paris, and counting on meeting people along trip as well. Craigslist may not be a bad place to look in, either.

Other misc/notes to self: Need to start learning cyrillic alphabet to be able to read roadsigns in Bulgaria. Friends in Hungary and Romania say language not a problem for me, most people there speak German or English, so should be able to get by. Still, no fun without trying to learn the local customs and language (language is culture! *grin*), so will take phrasebooks anyway.
Can't think of anything else at the moment. Will update here as things come up.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Route planning, part 2: detailed route planning.

Aha. So by now I knew what I wanted to do. Lisbon to Istanbul, simple, right?

Now came the fun part: figure out exactly how to do it.

I knew, of course, that I would be passing by the great capitals: Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Prague, then somehow down to Istanbul. But as to what exactly was to happen in-between was rather vague. So the first thing I did was to check out the UNESCO World Heritage Site list for the countries I was going to be passing through. In my experience, it is good to plan a trip by these sites. Oftentimes they are located in small, off the beaten track villages and roads, that may not always find their way into the typical guidebooks, but it is always worth checking them out, particularly because of their historical and cultural importance. What better way to get to know a country, than by getting to know and see first hand its cultural heritage.

So, I copied the list for the countries of Western Europe: Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, Czech Republic, and then picked the most likely Eastern European countries I was to travel through on the way to Turkey by simply avoiding questionable zones like former Yugoslavia. Sure, call me paranoid if you like, it is probably quite safe now, blah blah blah. But remember first of all at the moment it still looked like I was to be travelling alone (so not a good idea to take the any minimum of unnecessary risks), and places like Croatia and Serbia still have land mines lying around and I would not like to have an unhappy encounter with any unpleasant situation of the sort while traipsing around in my bike after a wrong turn, a distraction, or an inaccurate map. So I settled for Istambul from Prague by way of Vienna, Budapest, Romania, and Bulgaria, the last two countries' routes still a bit undecided (Romania is basically surrounded by the Carpathians in a type of inverted "C"-shaped mountain range, and cutting across from Cluj-Napoca to Bucharest would mean crossing the mountains twice, a rather exhausting thought!).

Anyway, armed with the list, I bought a big map of Europe and painstakingly marked the 160+ World Heritage Sites in the 11 countries I expected to pass through. The rest was easy: detailed route planning now becomes a simple problem of optimization, namely a variant of the travelling salesman problem. Complicated for a computer to solve, but trivial for a human armed with a thick black marker intent on avoiding crossing mountain ranges.
The result: a fairly straight-forward route passing (more or less) through Lisbon, Oporto, Santiago de Compostela, Lugo, Oviedo, Leon, Salamanca-Avila-Segovia, Madrid, Cuenca, Valencia, Tarragona, Barcelona, Carcassonne, along the Canal du Midi to Montpellier-PontduGard-Avignon-Orange, Lyon, Fontenay, Paris, Nancy, Reims, Trier, Aachen, Köln, Essen, Eisenach, Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Prague, Kutna Hora, Brno, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Cluj-Napoca, Sighisoara, Bucharest, Madara, Varna, Istanbul. The last few countries, of course, still left vague and TBD for the reasons aforementioned.
That there are several sections left TBD is no cause for worry, the plan is to get updated maps/info/guides as I travel (who can carry all those guidebooks while pedalling anyway, they'd be more than a third of my luggage weight!), and additionally the routes may get varied depending on the whereabouts of some of the current Europe-living friends at the moment (luckily, in college, my brother and I used to hang out with a rather international crowd, and the resulting network of friends is fairly well geographically extended).

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Route planning.

Right. So up until now (that is, from when my last post left off, as I was writing it in past tense, because I still need to catch you up on the happenings up until the present, and that hasn't quite just happened yet), I had a hazy plan to go on a long biking trip somewhere that was "not Nebraska".

Great, plan, huh? :-/

Anyway, first, the Silk Road came to mind. You know how some people have always wanted to go on the Trans-Siberian railway? Well, the Silk Road is just as cool sounding. And by bike, mega cool. So I started websurfing, and figuring out who'd done it before, and which way they went, and how long it would take, and those kinds of things. During such websearching, I ran into the webpage of this Swiss woman named Alessandra Meniconzi, who did just that, the Silk Road by bike, and documented it all in a beautiful photo book by the same name. (You can check out her webpage here.)

Well, of course I was intrigued, so I went ahead and emailed her. And guess what, she replied! Not only did she give me some really good tips on travelling in general, but she also mailed me detailed descriptions of the route she took, including weather reports and hotel and stay recommendations, as well as the names and addresses of some of her biking friends who might possibly be interested in becoming trip companions. She's an awesome woman, Alessandra. My greatest respects and admiration for her.

O.K., back to the story. Encouraged by this prospect, I got really ambitious, and actually started thinking about time frames and logistics. The biggest worry, of course, was the realization that I would have to quit my current job as an engineer. You can't (or you could, but I can't, I figured) simply complete such a trip in a couple of months. Of course, it is indeed possible to do so if you're in good shape and have experience: Alessandra's trip took her about 2.5 months, for a total of approx. 5,500 kms! This averages to only about 73 kms a day, which is reasonable. However, from my experience in Italy I knew that I was not the type to be able to average more than about 30 kms a day at the most when travelling through mountains (climbing to Passo Cisa took us about 6 hours, since we tended to average only about 3.5 km/h on the uphill!), and besides, I figured if you're going to embark on such an adventure anyway, you might as well take as much time as you want to look around, visit museums, ruins, or other places of cultural interest, befriend the locals, hang out at the parks and cafes, and sniff the flowers, kind of thing. So, I multiplied her time by 3, and figured the Silk Road would take me around 6 months.

Great! At this point, I figured, given that I'm going to have to quit my job anyway, why not take a full year off, and do the whole trade route thing, all the way to the westernmost tip of Europe? Might as well, I figured, start in Portugal, and end up 9 months to 1 year later in Shanghai. Cool, huh?

Right. Incredibly, it took me several weeks to realize, that doing so would imply spending a good chunk of the winter biking through the harsh and unforgiving mountains of central Asia.

So, back to the drawing board. But the good thing was, that now I had a more definite plan. I had a time frame for when to start, and when to end the trip. To maximize the warm weather months, it would have to start in April, and end around September. Additionally, if by December or January preceding the targetted April I had not found a travel companion (and it is difficult to find a friend who will quit his job for a 6 month chunk), I would have to go at it alone.

Optimal decision-making becomes so much easier once your problem statement contains constraints. I now had the constraint that my biking trip would have to last at most 6 months, and it had to be safe enough for me to be able to go alone. Do you see the no-brainer here? The Silk Road project (Istambul to Shanghai), alone with no companions, is very challenging, but the Portugal to Istambul part, that's pretty forgiving, in comparison. Remember, in Europe, towns are spaced only a few kilometers apart. In Europe, I know most of the languages of the places I was to travel around, in Europe, I have friends and family.

By this time, it was already December.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

First post.

I guess before I get into all the details: how I picked the route, what I packed, what kind of bike I took, how I convinced the airlines to ship my bike without breaking it (like they did my brother's bike 4 years ago, when he and I embarked on a similar biking trip through Italy, and arrived in Innsbrück, 1 day and 60 km from our trip starting point to discover with a combination of great panic, anger, and dismay that his derailleur was "transposed" front to back and quite inoperable), and all sorts of other various preparatory steps taken with the associated anecdotes and entertaining anxieties, I should attempt to provide an answer to the question that everybody has asked ever since I let the idea pass from an amorphous haze in my head out through my lips into the open air, where it could no longer be ignored, and held in, and postponed, because in the process of saying it, I had created witnesses, and could therefore no longer take it back, without the loss of pride and dignity, which many of us fight tooth and nail to preserve.

But no, it is not all in this, that I embarked on this adventure because I had mistakenly said a random thought to someone, and could not afterwards take it back, as if on a dare or a silly game of "chicken." I think, in some way, it was a bit more than that, though what exactly I don't know. It is true, that I had had a similar idea bouncing around, the idea of travelling through Nebraska in the summer alone by bike along the Oregon Trail, the reason for that one being, that Nebraska is basically a huge prairie, and the feeling, I imagined, of being the only person riding along an interminable sea of green with no one around you for miles seemed to me at the time a rather "cool" idea.

But the more I thought of this, the more the difficulties presented themselves. First of all, the US, and especially in states like Nebraska, is a rather sparse country. You can easily drive around here for hundreds of miles without encountering the smallest city, town or village. And while that aspect is appealing for introverted, adventurous types who enjoy being alone for long periods of time (like myself), it also requires a certain self-reliance that I found I could not posess: I know nothing of bike repair, I am small-framed and weak, and I'm also female, which while sounding politically incorrect, it is also true that this creates certain safety concerns that would not be present for the opposite gender.

So, here was the dilemma. I would have to go with someone to Nebraska. Or, as a congenial co-worker with a sense of humor suggested, "Go by yourself, and carry a shotgun strapped to your back." Heh. So the idea was put on the back burner for a while, and I went back to work on my software like a good engineer.

At any rate, some time passed. Here and there I bounced the idea of a long biking trip to a friend or acquaintance, test to see if I could find a companion one day, for Nebraska or elsewhere, I don't know. And as this time passed, along parallel tracks of speculation, and they were parallel for a while, for the several musings didn't intersect for quite a long time, were the thoughts that:
1. I wanted to travel abroad more, now that I seemed to have a little more money avaliable than when I was a student.
2. I had already biked through Italy with my brother, and it had been very safe (friendly people, villages spaced 10 kms apart, no one hassled us, routes were easy and traffic fairly polite).
3. China seems like a cool country, I wonder if one can bike along the Great Wall, and
4. The best way to travel through Europe is by bike.

Now, back when I was a kid in Mexico, at summer camp once, I remember wanting to jump off the 5m diving board at the local university's diving pool, near where we took our swimming lessons. And every day after swimming class the coach would say, "As a prize for a good class today, you get to dive off the diving board you like." And every day I would go up to the 5m diving board, which then to me seemed 10 stories tall, and stand right at the edge, and not be able to jump. It wasn't fear, per se, that stopped me. A big part of it was seeing my fellow classmates do what I did, get to the edge, pretend to jump, and then their feet would remain glued to the edge, not moving a millimeter. Or hearing them say: "O.K., at the count of 3, I'll go," and then hear them count to 5, 7, 10, and not jump. And I was just like them, always wishing, going even as far as pretending, but never doing. Until one day, one of the boys in the class took a running start, and jumped! He even did a quarter sommersault (the landing, a bit on his back, must've been painful, I'm sure) while in the air, the trajectory excruciatingly slow to watch, but he did it! And then what happened: a few of the classmates went to the edge, paused, as usual, and while some of them, too, counted again, interminably, to 10, 20, before they were convinced to step aside, some of them actually simply paused, closed their eyes, and jumped.

So. It was possible. My turn came. I went there, paused, and started thinking: "O.K. at the count of 3, I'll go." One. Two. Three.... and still my feet were glued. It was frustrating and I was mad at myself. Sillier people than me could do it, so so should I. After some time of this hesistation again the other kids started hassling me like they'd done the previous kids to step aside. Until I looked down (down the 10 stories, the kilometer drop to nothingness!) to an older kid, who simply said to me from below: "Don't think about it, just do it." And then I took a step back, and walked resolutely to the edge of the platform, pretending the platform extended 2 meters beyond its end, as if I were simply walking along a corridor, until I felt myself fall. A veritable leap of faith.

Deciding to bike through Italy was a bit like that. I was lucky, because my brother agreed to come with me, and I had therefore a built-in security system in case one of us were to run into trouble during the trip: an accident, an illness, a bike breakdown. In two, you can work things out, and even though there's risk in choosing a route through the unknown, we knew the language, and our Italian aunts and uncles were a quick phone call and short train ride away if we had needed them. But the good thing about that trip was, once again, reaffirming the realization I had had on the diving platform that day so many years ago: the only thing stopping you from doing something is your own little mental gymnastics. Just do it, don't think too much about the risks. Otherwise, you'll end up freaking yourself out of ever doing anything. And honestly, had my brother and I known everything about what could've possibly happened to us, we probably wouldn't have gone. But, you see, nothing bad did happen. So. Maybe we were lucky. Maybe the well-meaning people who were concerned and tried to discourage us even while we were already halfway through our trip overestimated the risks. Maybe, we simply managed the risks well. I don't know. But I do know that the biggest obstacle then, not only in deciding to embark on the adventure, but during, while slowly creeping along the 8 hour ascent of the Passo Cisa, or pedalling furiously as if there were no tomorrow while trying to find the nearest village before dark, or pleading with village owners to let us stay in the overbooked hotel because the next one was 30 kms away, was not the actual, immediate, present physical obstacle. It wasn't the pedalling, or the incline, or the hours, or the time of day, or the intractable hotel hosts, or the lack of food, or the bike breakdowns that force you to improvise a pedal out of a piece of plastic and bungie cords and carves a deep ridge along your sneaker soles, it was the thinking "Do I give up and go home, or do I finish this and collect a beautiful set of stories for my grandchildren?"

Anyway, I think at this point I'm no more closer to answering "why?" than I was when I started writing. But I guess the point is that, a good part of the answer is: "Well, because I can't see no reason why not to."

As for the reasons why to, or why now, there are many. But for that, I think, you have to find me, and ask me in person. This writing is getting too long anyway, and I'm sure you're more interested in hearing, how it was I managed once the decision was taken. And that, my friend, is what this blog is for. I'll keep you posted.