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Reentering the Atmosphere

Monday, January 21st, 2008

Two months ago we returned to the United States after our travels. Today we are back in Seattle, Washington – adjusting back to “normal” life and getting settled. Every day our trip seems more and more distant and honestly, it wasn’t that hard to adapt back to life in the good ol’ USA. That’s one thing that surprised us about our trip. When we set out, we left things open ended and we both wondered whether or not the trip was going to be some sort of drastic, life-altering event. It wasn’t. We came back as the same two people who left.

Sure, there were some things we learned along the way. There were big things, like seeing so much poverty and realizing just how lucky we are. Experiencing the friendliness and generosity of people all over the world changed our perspective too. And there were little things, like realizing just how popular television and Coca Cola are. No matter how destitute the place we were traveling through felt, we could always find those two things.

But America is our home, so while we definitely noticed the giant cars, giant malls, and giant people here when we returned, it wasn’t like either of us was about to have a nervous breakdown from the shock. On the other hand, we are definitely glad we gave ourselves some time before returning to work. After a year of zero responsibilities, it was good to add the stresses of normal life back slowly instead of all at once.

Before we embarked, we worried a lot. (Well, at least I did.) But once we were on the road, we never felt threatened by people the entire time. Dogs and monkeys were much scarier than the local people. Really, the hardest thing about this trip was deciding to go. Once we had made that decision, everything else was easy.

We never really got bored on the trip either. Some days you would wake up, start riding, and by 10am be thinking, “What the hell am I doing?” But something interesting would always happen or we’d see something beautiful and get excited about the place we were traveling through again. We did get a little worn down though. At four months into the trip, we were both thinking we could travel for two or three years easily. But then at 7 months we both started to feel like one year was the right amount of time for us. We knew we had made the right decision at the end because flying home sounded much more appealing that flying to South America and continuing on.

We get asked what our favorite place was quite a bit and its so hard to choose one place. Laos was probably the best cycling destination. It has everything a bicycle tourist could want: nice roads, low traffic, beautiful mountain scenery, good food, interesting and exotic culture, and low costs. Every single country was interesting though and we’re glad we visited each and every one of them.

Total cost: $39,205.97. Would we do it again? Hell, yes. Is there anything we would do differently. Probably. Here’s a list of little things (mostly gear related) that we wish we would have known beforehand.

Don’t fly so much. Do a point-to-point route. When planning this trip we wanted to cycle in as many parts of the world as possible. We thought we’d spend a month or two in one region, then fly to a totally new place. If we were to plan this trip over again we’d just fly to one continent and spend the whole year cycling there. Singapore to Istanbul sounds really appealing. Flying with bikes really does suck that much. Flying was a huge cost for us and on top of that most airlines have ridiculous fees for bicycles.

Consider a Recumbent. Before we purchased our bikes, I suggested that Sarah should think about a recumbent and she actually got mad at me. It was like I had suggested she should wear a permanent retainer. However, once we started traveling we saw a lot of people touring on recumbents and they looked more and more appealing. Comfortable. Perfect position for sightseeing. What’s not to love?

Bring a Laptop. We loved having our 10.6″ laptop. We used it for viewing our photos, writing journal entries, watching movies, and listening to podcasts. It was a great source of entertainment and was well worth the weight penalty. If we were going back to Europe, we would really look into cellphone broadband. Internet cafes are so expensive there that a cellphone solution might be cheaper. In the developing world, internet cafes were cheap but uploading pictures over the slow connection was a pain. Uploading video (even of YouTube quality) was just unbearable.

Bring a waterproof handlebar bag. My Jandd bag was labeled as “stormproof.” We’re still not sure what that is supposed to mean, but no matter how you look at it the bag was a huge disappointment. Sarah’s bag came with a “rain cover” that didn’t keep out any rain at all. What a joke! We carried our maps, money, passports, and camera in the handlebar bags. It was obviously important to keep that stuff dry, so we were reduced to packing it all up in a big plastic bag inside the handlebar bag and fumbling around every time we tried to buy something or take a picture in the rain.

Bring padded cycling underwear rather than spandex cycling shorts or mountain bike shorts. The cycling underwear is easy to wash out in the sink and dries overnight. You can wear them under any type of shorts or pants in hot or cold weather. I only brought mountain bike shorts which are more difficult to wash out in a sink, take too long to dry, and are useless in cold weather. Sarah bought Loeffler cycling underwear in Germany after riding without any sort of padding for 6 months and loved them.

World Mapping Project and Rough Guide maps were the best maps to buy before we entered a country. In Europe, the best thing to do was stop at the first gas station we saw and buy a detailed atlas for about $10.

Don’t bother with a front light on your bicycle. Instead, bring a strong headlamp which is really useful for all the typical camping uses and can also be strapped around your handlebar bag as a makeshift headlight for situations like tunnels.

Bring brightly colored panniers rather than all black. Sure, our black panniers don’t show dirt but you stop caring about the beauty of your panniers really quickly. We’d rather have bright red or yellow ones to increase our visibility on the road.

There is no such thing as gears that are too small. If we were to do it again we’d go out of our way to get the smallest gears possible. Good for your knees and good for climbs that last all day long.

Don’t bring waterbottles. Just buy a couple bottles of Coke and re-use those bottles over and over again until they get gross. Then you can recycle them and start over.

If you’re even considering it, bring an altimeter. You are always going to be wondering just how big that last climb was, how high you are right now, and how many meters you did in a full day of ‘undulating hills’ in New Zealand. We love having the ability to quantify what we just climbed.

Bring one decent outfit. You will undoubtedly meet people that will invite into their home our out to dinner. It is worthwhile to have decent clothes to wear to these things because it feels very disrespectful and rude to show up in nasty cycling clothes that are about to fall apart.

Make your own mini-phrase book if you are passing through many countries in a short period of time. It is not worth it to buy a phrase book for each country, and they usually contains tons of words and phrases you’ll never use. In places like Cambodia where our attempts to pronounce words were usually met with blank stares, we’d try to use our phrasebooks by pointing out relevant words rather than saying them. Usually people couldn’t read the words because they text in most phrasebooks is so small. If I were doing it again I’d just spend an hour or so making my own cheat sheet. There are only a few things you really need to know to get by. Basically everything else is just easier to communicate with charades. If you get a flat tire or something, you don’t really need to know the sentence for “I have a flat tire. I need a new tube to fix it. Can you please help me find a bicycle shop nearby?” In fact, even if you had your phrasebook sitting right in your handlebar bag you’d realize that it quickly becomes ridiculous to look up the sentence and then laboriously read it out to your audience. They’ll just laugh and have no clue what you just said. It’s much more efficient and effective to point to your flat tire. 99% of people are going to understand that you need to fix it and will help you if they can.


Friday, November 23rd, 2007

At 5:30am our laptop’s “Banana Phone” alarm song went off for the last time.  We each put on our one clean outfit (saved especially for the plane ride!) and packed our meager belongings into our new suitcases…rather, our two cardboard boxes.  Here I am posing with our new luggage set.  I suppose our belongings can’t technically be called meager; they are bigger than me!

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We’d reserved a van to bring us to the airport in the morning and for the first time didn’t get ripped off on transportation in Istanbul.  A porter with an extra large trolley cart met us at the curb and we decided to pay him to help us navigate the check in lines.  He went over and above his duties and actually spent the entire time we waited in line maniacally smothering our boxes in multiple layers of tape.  The check-in lady told us that our boxes were all under the weight limit, but we would have to pay a fee for our bicycles anyway.  We were really annoyed (as usual) because people with super heavy golf clubs or scuba equipment are never charged a penalty fee, but after an unsuccessful try at telling her that bicycles were supposed to be free on international Turkish Airlines flights, we forked over the 80 Euros required.

The first plane flew from Istanbul to Chicago – 12 hours of flying fun.  Normally I can sleep without a problem on airplanes, but maybe because this plane departed at 9:30am I was unable to sleep at all.  Neither could Jamie.  It wasn’t fun.

We arrived an hour late in Chicago and on top of that found out the panic inducing news that upon arrival in the USA all passengers had to collect their baggage, pass through customs, take a train to the domestic terminal, and then recheck everything back in!  What a nightmare, especially given that we only had an hour and a half until our connecting plane left!  We went into full panic mode and split up – Jamie waited for our regular sized boxes and I ran to the oversized luggage area to look for our bikes.  We shouldn’t have worried about splitting up and running around to reclaim our boxes because they were the last things off of the plane.  I did manage to have fun while waiting for the bicycles, though, because I was reveling in my ability to have a conversation in English with anyone! 

We finally gathered everything and loaded it onto a trolley to go through US customs.  On the plane we’d filled out a customs form which required us to list all the countries we’d visited since we’d left the US – in a tiny 2″ by 1″ box!  We’d been to 17 countries and Jamie told me there was no way I was going to be able to fit everything in that tiny space.  But I was up for the challenge!  I got out my super fine tip pen and went to work.  In the end I fit all 17 countries with room to spare.  Super-tiny writing ability is one of my secret talents, and I am happy that I was able to put it to good use on the trip.  We were a little nervous about getting through customs given how long we’d been out of the country plus the amazing amount of baggage we were traveling with, but it ended up being a breeze.  We told them we’d been on a one year bicycle tour, they said “Welcome back to the USA!” and that was that.

Getting our boxes on the train between terminals was no fun, and neither was rechecking our luggage.  We missed our connecting flight by quite a bit and I was starting to get really depressed about the thought of being stuck in Chicago for Thanksgiving.  However, there was another flight two hours after ours that we were able to get on, and amazingly enough this later flight still left us enough time to catch our final connection to Wilmington.  A Thanksgiving miracle!

We arrived in Wilmington around 11:30pm and our whole plane cheered as we touched down.  My mom was there waiting for us, and snapped a homecoming picture of us in front of the American flag.

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We waited around for an hour or so for our boxes, but three of the four never came.  Instead there were about 15 unclaimed suitcases that had been mistakenly loaded onto our plane.  Who knows where our stuff was!  This was great timing for losing our baggage, though, because we were pretty much wearing everything we needed. 

My brothers were waiting for us at home, and we all marveled at the fact that it’d already been a year!  The next day we had a big Thanksgiving dinner with my mom, grandma and grandpa, aunt and uncle, and brothers.  It was so much fun to see everyone.  And fun to eat a meal that hadn’t been cooked in one pot! And to be able to use a fork, spoon, and knife!

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Now that the holiday is over we are brushing up our resumes and looking around for our next jobs.  Seattle is looking like the front runner, but we are still keeping our eyes out for interesting opportunities in other cities. 

Finally, here are some things that feel really luxurious and strange to us, after a year on the road:

– Having a large, clean, well lit bathroom to yourself.  Taking a hot shower with good smelling products.  Drying off with a clean fluffy full sized towel.  Doesn’t sound like much, but feels like pure heaven to us right now!

– Eating meals that consist of multiple dishes.  A meat, a salad, fruit, and a grain dish.  Using utensils other than a plastic spork.

– Looking out the window and noticing that it is cold, rainy, and windy…and not feeling a dread about having to ride in it.

– Getting hungry, opening up the refrigerator, and being astonished at having so many options to choose from.

–  Walking through the parking lot of Target on Black Friday and marveling at the size and number of all the cars in the lot.

We’re collecting our thoughts for a final post with our impressions, advice, etc. Stay tuned.

Golden Birthday

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Happy Birthday to you, James William Welle!

Today Jamie turns 28 years old on the 28th of October, which makes this his golden birthday! Normally the golden birthday celebrant should enjoy an entire day filled with gift opening and cake eating, possibly topped off by a gigantic blow-out party in the style of MTV’s “Sweet Sixteen”.

However, we are in Giurgiu, Romania today, so there will be no blow-out parties or gift opening sprees. Instead Jamie’s celebration will involve a trip to the grocery store to pick out some Haribo gummies, a Romanian cake, and anything he wants for lunch and dinner (it must be cookable on the gas stove, of course). We also took some documentary pictures of Jamie at 28 for future reference.

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Jamie is very lucky that we’ve rolled into a town with a real supermarket on his birthday, which will make his celebration feast possible. Giurgiu is the first place we’ve found a supermarket since Belgrade, Serbia. Grocery stores up to this point have been small mini-markets that stock just a few basics, which in this part of the world means canned and tubed meats, bulk waffle-textured wafer cookies, candies, and various pickled vegetables. Also, all the food in the Romanian mini-markets is kept behind glass counters. To buy anything you must ask the cashier to get it for you which is frustrating for us because we can’t say the Romanian name for the thing we want so we are reduced to pointing and then saying “No, no, no, no…” until the cashier points to the correct thing. As soon as you walk into a mini-market you are subject to the cashier’s unwavering steely gaze. She expects that you know exactly what you want, will order it promptly, and get out. I am not familiar with the types of things they sell in Romanian mini-marts so I always want to look around to see what the options are, but the language barrier and intense cashier-gaze always fluster me into giving up my browsing dreams. That plus the limited selection of goods means that we have a very monotonous diet. For breakfast we have yogurt and muesli. Lunch is bread and cheese. Dinner has been pasta, canned tomatoes, and canned beans. Every few days we find apples that are not shriveled up. It seems like most people grow their own produce rather than buy it in stores, so the selection is usually pretty bad.

Here’s Jamie with his birthday cupcakes and goblets of apple juice plus fizzy water.

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Dear Kitties, we miss you

Saturday, October 28th, 2006

Last we heard, Robo was living out of a small crate in the Welle family closet.

Robo, we miss you!  

Barbie is living with the Hansens in Wilmington, North Carolina.  We wish she would go on a hunger strike, but last we heard she is trying to trick people into feeding her at least two times a day.

Barbie, we miss you too!  





Marathon Photo Update

Monday, October 16th, 2006

Marathon update for your entertainment: Finish Line Photos!

John Erck, 4:29. When asked what he was thinking at the moment this photo was taken: “You’d have to put a bullet in my brain to stop this train.”

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James Erck, 4:35. Looking very comfortable. Or is that a little pain I spy in his eye? Possibly looking forward to his 2nd cigarette of the day and a big bag of Cheetos.
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Sarah Erck, 4:40. Totally delirious.
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Sarah’s last day at Microsoft!

Friday, October 13th, 2006

Today is my last day at Microsoft. It doesn’t quite seem real yet…

Now I’m free to spend all my time taking care of trip preparations. Liquidation officially begins next week, so if you’re in Seattle and you want a couch, TV, dresser, kitchen table, and more, just let me know!

Update: Brown couch and kitchen table are sold – thank you Ethan Chin and Jim Ray! I still have a blue full size futon, big TV, red TV stand, blue dresser, Queen bed frame, Queen mattress, 2 bedside tables, coffee table, 2 bookshelves, and digital piano for sale.  Drop me a line if you want to make a deal!

Twin Cities Marathon!

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006

We made it! James, John, and I have completed the first official Erck family marathon – and we had a lot of fun running it!

The weather on the day of the race was perfect – sunny and clear, temp in the 60s at the starting line and into the 80s at the finish. We met at Dad’s apartment at 7:30am where James had his first cigarette of the day. John & his major case of bedhead looked around sleepily and said things like: What’s a race number? Does anyone have any chapstick? Where’s the starting line? They had obviously just rolled out of bed whereas I had gotten up 2 hours earlier to eat & digest breakfast, stretch, drink water, etc. I suppose that makes me a typical oldest child… Here’s a picture of us at the beginning of the day.

The actual race itself was lots of fun up to mile 20. We all stuck together, chatted, laughed, and had a grand old time running our 10 minute miles. Right around 20 I started to feel like crap. This is where a series of long slow inclines began. This is also where the perfect weather transformed into a nasty hot beating sun. I felt like even more crap. At mile 22 I needed to slow down, so James stuck with me and John took off to finish the last 4 miles at his own pace. At mile 23 I could not believe I had 3.2 entire miles left to run. We walked a little extra through the water stop, then decided we each had to start running again at our own crippled pace in order to make it to the end. James needed to go a little faster than we’d been going, I needed to go a little slower. I felt like I was in a trance, running in slow-mo through jello. At mile 26 I saw Jamie and Dad cheering for me, but I did not feel like sparing the energy to acknowledge them.

And then I finished! We all found each other, took many celebratory pictures, and went home to sleep and eat for the rest of the day. Final times were: John 4:29, James 4:35, and Sarah 4:40.

The Erck Marathon Approaches

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

This is completely unrelated to our upcoming travels, but it is too exciting to not write about!

This weekend, October 1st, James, John, and I will run our first marathon – together! We will run the Twin Cities marathon, also known as The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon. 26.2 miles through the city and around Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet, Lake Nokomis, along the Mississippi River, finishing right in front of the State Capitol.

I started training a few months ago and have been semi-diligent with my training plan – I have faithfully completed (almost) all of my weekend long runs, but I’ve been lazy about doing mid-week runs.  My longest long run was 19 miles, completed 3 weeks ago. And it was rough. During the last few miles my muscles & joints were so sore that it took an embarrassing amount of effort to pick them up and move them for the next step. I am hoping for lots of adrenaline during the marathon to keep me going. Alison or Dad, maybe I need one of you to hide somewhere around mile 21 so you can jump out and scare the crap out of me. That will help with the adrenaline, right?

James & John went with a totally different training plan. They did almost nothing. They do claim they ran 10 miles together, 3 months ago, but “it was so easy that we got bored and stopped running.” hmmmm… They are counting on their youth and Viking heritage (John’s exact words) to carry them through.

I’m not saying I want to see my brothers go through a lot of pain and suffering…but if they skip across the finish line I might have to kill them. Actually, if they carry me, while skipping along through the finish line, I will be OK with that.