Thursday, August 31, 2017

Ignorance, a Dominatrix, and a Ferry to Nowhere

Day: 36 (Himare, Albania to Konispol, Albania)

Average Speed: 15 km/hr (9 mph)

Distance Today: 82.6 km (51 miles)

Distance Cycled Total: 3578 km (2223 Miles)

Mood: Whipped

What's this? A cycle path in Albania?? It can't be! It's too good to be true...
200 meters later.

Want to know something that I know practically nothing about?


I know a little bit about irony, but damn… that thing that I’ve ridden over 8,000 miles on in a calendar year- No clue. We get along great, me and Trek. We really do. But it’s a very superficial relationship. Just pats on the back and smacks on the ass after a tough ride. 

We have the same relationship that Little League coaches have with their outfielders. 

I started losing my rear brake a long time ago. I noticed. But I ignored. 

It’s a lot harder to ignore when that brake becomes absolutely worthless and the front starts to call it a night as well. 

Especially when you’re on the coast of Albania, where long 10% climbs are the par, and the switchbacked descents are equally as wicked. 

I remember when I thought the coast of Montenegro was difficult with those silly 8% climbs. Ha! Ha ha! ha ha ha…. ugh.  

And Croatia, your 6% is pathetic. You should be ashamed. I barely needed brakes for you.

I had intended to watch a few YouTube videos on bicycle maintenance before leaving New York- but then “Orange is the New Black” released a new season on Netflix, and… you know how that goes. 

Whatever. It’s just a bike. How complicated could it be?

This morning, with brimming confidence, I found my multi-tool, looked at the brakes, and saw three screws I could’ve tightened. 

I stared at each of them for about 30 seconds. 

Then I put the multi-tool back where I found it and decided I’d use Fred Flintstone style brakes if need be.

I’m not mechanically inclined. 

This tool and some brains is all you need to fix a bike.
I have the tool.
But it’s rather a problem when it takes 200 meters to come to a stop. Really. It’s also very, very scary. 

I dealt with it until I reached the city of Sarande- only four huge climbs away from my starting point- and asked a car mechanic if he knew of a bicycle repair shop. He briefly assessed my problem before answering. Looked at me blankly. Grabbed a screwdriver. And fixed the problem in less than thirty seconds. Then he looked at me blankly again and shrugged.

I would’ve loved to take a self-deprecating photo capturing my ignorance, but the repair was over too quickly. I still don't know which of the three he tightened. 

Best dollar I’ve ever spent. 

Goats stare at me mock my effort.

It turned out to be another brutal day on a bicycle here in Albania. I still love this country, but wow. I really think they designed these roads just to mess with cyclists. 

The coast of Albania, personified.

A mountain range like the Rockies politely demands respect. 

And the Albanian coast demands respect too, but in a dominatrix sort of way. 

These mountains are dressed in leather and wielding a whip. It gets to the point that you don’t even feel a sense of accomplishment when you finish a climb because celebration is futile. All she’s doing is temporarily putting away the whip and bringing out the ball gag for a bit. 

There's a woman spewing chunks to my left.
I stopped for a photo op at one point, and a car pulled in next to me. I went to approach the passenger side in order to ask the woman to snap a pic of me, but it turns out they weren’t there to take in the scenery. Instead, she opened the door and vomited. 


I decided this was a good time to try the iPhone’s panorama mode instead. 

This kid gives a fig.

Still, these climbs do offer their rewards. At the top of one, a small child saw me and came running over for a high five. Then he ran back to a fig tree, picked one, and offered it to me with a huge smile. It was delicious, and his innocent delight was refreshing. It’s this sort of thing one will never experience touring by bus or car, and it’s this sort of thing that happens constantly. Day in and day out.

Also, things eased up eventually. 10% climbs became 4% climbs and several flat sections helped to restore some confidence. But the bulk of the day was spent fighting the first 40 kilometers of the ride, and by the time I got to Sarande, I was secretly delighted that the cycle route suggested taking a ferry to the island city of Corfu and then another back to the mainland. I figured I was done for the day, and took a long lunch break, picturing myself sipping on Mai Tais and playing shuffleboard while the sun set on my first night in Greece. 
Not quite the ferry I was hoping for...

But the last ferry left at 4 PM. 

And I arrived at 4:09. 

Oh well. 

Neither Google nor my new cycle app seemed to know of a way to head south without the ferry or a drastic detour, so I aimlessly created my own route.

There was a ferry of sorts… a tiny barge that’s pulled back and forth over a small inlet by cables. I took that instead.

There were no mai tais. 

And I ended up in the tiny town of… hold on… let me check… Konsipol. 

The setting sun vs. the directionless cyclist

I thought about pedaling through the night, but I wasn’t prepared enough. Low on water and rations, flashlights not fully charged, external battery at half-power, and a SIM card that will be rendered worthless when I cross the border into Greece. 

But I was rejuvenated by the time I got here, and my gas tank was full.

I’m off the tourist trail- no familiar faces of the same backpackers hopping from town to town anymore. 

Pretty much everyone in Albania is willing to rent out a room for 10 bucks, and when I saw a small sign that simply said ROOM, I bit. 

I’m charging all of my devices and trying to mentally prepare myself for a big ride. It’s time. 

It may have been a tough day under the whip, but I feel good. 

Never knew I was into that sort of thing.


In America, we protect our crops with scarecrows...

Albania is much cuter about it. 


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Cinderella Story, a Stick of Pepperoni, and Starting at Sea Level

Day: 35 (Vlore, Albania to Himare, Albania)

Average Speed: 12.8 km/hr (8 mph)

Distance Today: 72.1 km (45 miles)

Distance Cycled Total: 3495 km (2171 Miles)

Mood: A bit low

Sign in tonight's hostel.
Cheryl, one of the secretaries where I work, bought a similar sign for me last year to hang in my classroom.
She painted the saddle green.

Over lunch yesterday, Inka said something in her chipper nature that I found surprising:

"Albania is my favorite country so far!" 

Wait... where did the potholes go?
Really? I thought. I mean, it's growing on me, but favorite? That's a stretch.

Being frugal travelers, I assumed she and Fabi were most attracted to the rock-bottom prices here, and I left it at that. 

Personally, I put the country last on my list after Day One. It nudged itself past the Czech Republic on Day Two. Day Three, it scored a spot above Germany. And today? It skyrocketed to #1 on my list as well. Sorry, Austria. 

From last Sunday's NYT crossword


Kudos, Albania. A Cinderella Story.

I would hate to take my route in reverse and leave this incredible place with a bad taste in the mouth. 

I'm aware of my affinity for using superlatives in description, but... I think today's climb tops anything I've done before as far as difficulty goes. Hard to tell. I live in the present. But still. 

Over coffee this morning, the hostel guests and owner warned me about it when they heard about my goal of making it to Sarande: 

"Dude. There's a serious, serious mountain coming up. Change your plans. Aim for Himare instead." 

Pffft. What do they know?

More than I, apparently.  

Only part of the way up.

This was not just a "proper climb" (to borrow Jamie's phrase). This was a big, beautiful, badass bitch of a climb: The length of one of the Rockies with the steepness of one of the Ozarks. I may have only cycled 45 miles today, but in those 45 miles, I climbed 5,800 feet. And of those 45, I'm guessing 15  were downhill, and about 10 were relatively flat.

That's a lot of climbing in a short distance. 

Partway up- when I was already sweat-soaked and out of breath- I stopped at a tiny fruit stand to refill my water. I met some fellow New Yorkers (ex-pat Albanians) who were familiar with the area and we struck up a conversation. 

"I can't believe I have to go up there," I said, pointing to barely visible cars high above us.

They laughed.

"You're not going there, friend. You're going THERE." They took my arm, moved it to the left a bit, and drastically changed the angle. See pic. 

"Wait... what?"

For once, traffic patiently waited behind me as I crawled my way up, and when they carefully passed it was thumbs-up only. No honks. Two police cars put their lights on when they approached, and accompanied me for a bit. All grins. 

Sections of the climb

Five hours. One climb. 

Heck, even the Strava App that I recently started using automatically labeled one 2.5 mile section as "Welcome to Hell." I climbed that part at 2.6 MPH. You feel like you're going to fall when you drop below 3. 

Still, I could've done more today. 

I should've done more today. 

I need to get going. 

I need to be finished.

I didn't even start pedaling until 12:30 PM, and it is with a serious lack of excitement that I mark that square off the Bingo Board. 

My ride is coming to an end. 

I confess, it's already past its expiration date. 

And I still haven't booked a flight home.

My CVMS family (can't use the word "co-workers") is prepping their classrooms, and I'm not there. 

My choice. I need to not be there this year.

At 37, I still need to figure out where I'm going. 

Not too long ago, I watched a close friend of mine hack away at a stick of pepperoni with a plastic knife, trying to cut off piece for himself. It took him a while, and when he finally made it through, I snagged it up and swallowed it. It's the sort of thing that friends do. I wasn't even hungry... I just wanted to nullify his effort. Seemed funny at the time. 

But he was pissed. 

"You're so lazy," he said. I thought he was joking at first, but then he went on to enumerate examples of my sloth. He was dead serious.

It stung. Worse than the wasp that found its way under my cycle shorts a few weeks ago. And he didn't stop there.

That's what I heard today, over and over again in my head as I climbed this fucker. 

You're so lazy. (I can do this. I know I can.)

You're being selfish. (If a car can do it on four wheels, I can do it on two.)

You're giving up on your school family. (Don't look five kilometers ahead. Look five meters ahead.)

You're on a cycle-tour like a vagrant. (One More Pedal.)

You have no direction. (Your hand's asleep. Slap your ass. Don't stop.)

You can't hold a relationship because the only thing you care about is your job. (Turn up the music.)

Your wife left you because you were too busy working. (Almost there.)

You miss your nephews' and nieces' birthday parties. And their soccer games. You're a shitty uncle. (I got this. This is easy.)

You're a sucker. You volunteer for everything. You have no personal life. And your bank account is laughable. (Sweat never felt so good.)

You. Are. Lazy. (Made it.)

I solemnly celebrated with a beer at the top, breaking my "no booze while riding" policy. 

I thought about the kids I won't see this year; the kids I consider to be my own. 

I thought about the heartfelt letters I got from students who have graduated, thanking me for influencing their lives.

I thought about my mom. My dad. And 10,000 things I could've done to be a better son.

And then I climbed onto my bicycle, and descended. And I thought about Albania. I'm not ashamed to use a superlative here. It was the most incredible descent I've ever experienced. 

Feel free to ride a tiny portion of if. No time lapse. No editing. You'll see it as I see it, with the same song I had playing in my earbuds in the background.

It wasn't sweat that stained my cheeks. 

I assumed I had finished climbing for the day.

I thought it would've been all downhill to my destination. To Himare. 

I really thought that. 

But when I met sea level once again, I looked up, and saw tiny cars maneuvering high above me with tiny headlights. 

"You gotta be kidding me." 

Another huge climb. 

You can do it. 

You're 37, and you're starting at sea level. 

Cinderella Story. 

It's just a mountain. 

Climb that fucker. 


 This hitchhiker may have beaten me yet again (to Himare this time)...

But damn, it was a great reunion with a big hug.

And I hijacked one of his signs.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Hands, Kisses, and an American Idiot

Day: 33 and 34 (Tirana, Albania to Durres, Albania) / (Durres, Albania to Vlore, Albania)

Average Speed: 13.8 km/hr (8.6 mph) / 17.5 km/hr (11 mph)

Distance Cycled Last Two Days: 44 km (27 Miles) / 116 km (72 miles)

Distance Cycled Total: 3423 km (2126 Miles)

Mood: Awesome

A Peddler's Mode of Transport in Albania. (Pun Intended)

A cyclist's tan lines
It's the hands. 

Some of the Usual Comments after a long ride have to do with what hurts: 

Your legs must be killing you!

Nope. Not at all. After a week and a half, they forget how to be sore. 

Your poor ass!

Not really. In fact, most of the time it's actually a pleasure to take a seat on that saddle... even after a long day. 

Your back... 


The sun on your skin...

Rarely wear sunblock. 

It's the hands. 

Those suckers never quite get accustomed to gripping handlebars all day. They turn into a
pair of lobster claws and go numb. At least for me they do. Once in a while, in order to get feeling back, I start slapping one hand at a time across my own ass. 


I do this without a care in the world as to who's watching. 

Imagine you're... I dunno... anyone, and you're behind a cyclist who looks quite normal, and then all of the sudden, the guy just starts violently spanking himself. That's a conversation piece right there. Probably looks like I'm trying to atone for serious sinnage in some sort of no-name cult religion. 

And the hands take far more abuse than normal when the road surface is shitty. 

And this is a good section...
Welcome to Albania. The land of shitty, shitty road surfaces. Whether you're a pedestrian, a car, or a cyclist- if you take your eyes off the road, there is a strong chance you will find yourself in a pothole- nay- chasm with little hope of finding your way out unbroken. And watch out for those water drainage openings... they're not covered. A small child could easily be swallowed up by one of those... and if you've ever read Stephen King's It...  Even cars have serious difficulty finding a drivable path.

Typical roadside litter
BUT- this country has grown on me tremendously in the past couple of days. Yes, there are rancid litter heaps along the roadsides. Yes, I've passed hundreds upon hundreds of stray dogs. But the people are fantastic. And that makes a huge difference. 

Typical stray dog

Norway with it's pristine- almost utopian- cleanliness would be horrified at some of the Albanian conditions, but people are outwardly friendly once again.

Hungry, hungry kittens!

If I stop on a roadside, it's not uncommon for the car behind me to stop and offer me a ride or directions, even though I need neither.

Nearly every child walking alongside the road wants a high five when I pass. 

Waiters, police officers, and hostel owners engage in long and sincere conversations. 

This started as soon as I crossed the border, although I failed to write about it the other day as I tried to cleanse my palate of the horrible ride to Tirana. 

My first introduction to Albanian kindness was when I bought a new SIM card for my phone at a small, family run market. The process of buying a SIM card is not exactly easy, and although the sign outside advertised that they sold them, I'm pretty sure it was their first time going through the process of actually activating and installing it. I was in there for forty-five minutes. 

During that time, five customers came in, and the owner gave each four kisses on alternating cheeks accompanied with a firm grip in the midsection and a sincere look in the eyes. Buying a dozen eggs? Four manly kisses. Carton of smokes? Four kisses. Milk? You get four for that! 

And when the owner acted like his favorite soccer team scored a goal after he got my SIM card to work, running around and jumping and shouting all sorts of victory, I was all set for a beard-to-beard kiss fest. 

I got a handshake instead. 

It was a really nice handshake, though. Really. 

But part of me wished I bought some eggs.

Anyway, I'm glad I chose to head out of the (skippable) city of Tirana and head toward the coastal town of Durres. It was a very short ride and I pedaled lazily. The hills returned, but I doubt I burned more than six calories. 

I'm twice their age. Ouch.

I met up with two other bike-packers at a guest house, Inka and Fabi: nineteen-year-olds in their fifth month (!) of a nine month (!) cycle tour. 

They are mature. 

They are pensive. 

They are wise beyond their years. 

Everything I'm not. 

Thanks for this, Fabi!

After leaving the Pay-What-You-Want-To-Pay hostel, we parted ways for different destinations. They left an hour after I did. But because Fabi suggested an App other than Google Maps for me to use for navigation, I was taken on a wild route made up of bridges with stairs to climb and roads with miniature boulders embedded in sand. 

Riding with Fabi

They caught up to me no problem when I finally found a paved road that paralleled their route, and they steered me in the right direction. In fact, although we only pedaled 20 km together, I'm gonna go ahead and mark off "Pedal a Day with a Stranger" on the Bingo Board. 

And even though we both had a long way to go that day, the route was flat and we were moving fast. Surely we could afford the time for a long lunch break (3 meals, 2 appetizers, 4 sodas... 10 dollars. Albania is SUPER cheap). 

Top of mega-climb
(Photo Credit: Guy selling potato chips)
But I was still using the App Fabi had suggested after we parted ways the second time... and that App decided that I needed a detour... up a long and winding mountain with a 12% grade. 

That'll slow you down. 

No big deal, I thought. I don't mind the workout, and besides, I'll have an amazing downhill, right? 


Actually, I shouldn't say "Wrong." It was an amazing downhill... just amazing in a different way. 

See... the problem was that the road I was cycling up suddenly ended at the top of the mountain. As far as I could tell, there was no way down other than the way I came up. This was confirmed by the man selling potato chips at the summit. I have no idea to whom he was selling said chips. As far as I could tell, not many people sojourn to where I'd landed. Business strategies seem odd in Albania.

Just follow the goats... they know the way.

Eventually, I saw a dirt trail that looked like it went downhill, and when I asked him if that was the way down, his eyes widened. This was a trail for goats. Not people.

"You cannot go down that way with a bicycle, Impossible. No good."

Not for road bikes... or anything really

But my new App was insistent, and after a little back-and-forth, I decided that the App knew more than the local man. He pointed to the nearby chapel and suggested I say a prayer first. I threw the earbuds in, queued up Green Day's American Idiot, and went for it. 

American Idiot indeed. Mr. Pringles was right. That was 8 kilometers of dangerous insanity. It took over an hour to reach the bottom. I know because I got there just as the album finished. Unpacked sand, deep ruts, giant rocks... this trail would've been difficult to hike. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't fall more than a few times. 

Feel free to take a portion of the time-lapsed ride with me:

Perhaps most upsetting was that the trail eventually led back to the same flat road that I had left to go climb the mountain in the first place. Whatever. It was an experience. Thanks for the App, Fabi!

Another fun place to crash

I arrived into the city of Vlore and found the night's $9 hostel later than originally expected, well past dark. But heck- a new cast of characters was waiting for me there.


 And the guy who runs the market in the alley across the way loudly sang Christmas songs to me as he sold me a few cans of the locally made brew. 

If you can get past the burning
trash on the roadside... there's a chance
you'll love Albania

It's hard to call it anything less than a great day, and Albanian hospitality more than makes up for the occasional eyesores. 

I'd give you a round of applause, Albania, but I can't today. 

My hands are friggin' killing me.    


"Waiter, what's this fly doing in my pasta?"

"Looks like he's being a real Penne Pincher!"

yuk, yuk, yuk!