Archive for November, 2007


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.

The End of the Road

Saturday, November 17th, 2007

We’ve reached our final destination: Istanbul, Turkey!


The 14th was our last day of bicycle touring. We considered taking a bus from Burgas, Bulgaria to Istanbul, but decided we wanted one more good day of riding to end our trip. The Black Sea coast of Bulgaria is too developed for pleasant bicycle touring. Traffic is heavy on the coastal road and you rarely see the sea at all. The weather forecast showed two days of sun before more rain started, so we left the coast to head inland to the border with Turkey. It was a nice ride up in the mountains and we enjoyed the fall scenery while contemplating where the year went.


After 90 kilometers and 1000 meters of climbing, we arrived in the small border town of Malko Tarnovo in Bulgaria where we spent the night. The most memorable thing about the town was that the hospital doubled as the hotel. The hospital looked like your stereotypical giant communist building and had no signs, so we had quite a time finding it. The room was clean though and we left with all our organs. The next morning we woke up expecting sun, but were instead greeted by heavy rain, so we decided to cycle 10 kilometers to the border-post and try to catch a bus into Istanbul from there. Finding a bus wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped though and we ended up waiting around for four hours only to have the first three buses refuse to take us. We were up at 800 meters and the rain had become intense, so Sarah began to panic and started to formulate an elaborate plan on how she was going to convince the next driver to take us. She was going to look as desperate as possible, tug at his shirt sleeve, and even considered shedding a tear. Luckily, that wasn’t necessary because the fourth bus agreed to take us immediately and we were able to avoid riding in the downpour.


Since we arrived in Istanbul, we’ve been enjoying the sights, getting ready to leave, and getting ripped off. A minibus from the bus station to the center cost us 40 lira (~US$33) and a 15 minute taxi ride to the DHL office to pick up our airline tickets was 40 lira as well. Transportation has really proved to be the mother of all rip-offs on this trip. It’s not like we aren’t trying either, check out all the negotiation I attempted with the taxi driver below. When we first settled on the price for the taxi, the driver flashed three fingers which I interpreted as 3 lira, but he later claimed he meant 30 lira. When I was trying to get him down to something more reasonable, he kept insisting his patron would actually kill him if he accepted anything less than 40 lira.


Other than the conniving transport vendors, Istanbul is a great city. Maybe the best city of the trip. This is actually our second visit here, but Istanbul still impresses. The city is filled with beautiful mosques and other exotic architecture. It’s great to just walk around the city and marvel at the spectacular ancient buildings.


The food is awesome too. We’ve been feasting on various types of kebabs and other Turkish specialties. Our favorite so far is Adana Kebap which is a little spicy. We’ve also been drinking a lot of Ayran, which is a salty yogurt drink that you usually consume with a meal. It sounds gross but it’s actually really tasty! The city is a little more expensive than we remembered though; a meal for two at a Turkish restaurant costs around 15 lira (~US$12.5).


Sweets are also plentiful. Every block has a few shops dedicated solely to desserts and candy. They sell so many different types of baklava, Turkish delights, and other unidentified sweets that it would take us weeks to try it all!


There are also lots of fresh juice stands. We couldn’t resist trying the pomegranate. It had a different taste than the bottled stuff, a little more earthy.


The most popular beverage by far, though, is tea. It is served in small glasses with two sugar cubes on the side.


People drink tea everywhere, not just in cafes. There are tea vendors running all over the city carrying silver trays full of tiny glasses of tea which they serve to people hanging out on the street. Along the Bosphorus Strait, we saw many men fishing while sipping their freshly delivered glasses of tea. Looks like fun!


We’ll be here until the 21st when we fly back to the US. We have been packing up the bikes, figuring out how we are going to get our excess baggage home, and how we are going to get to the airport. Bicycles are great when you are on the road, but they are a huge drag when you are trying to get on an airplane. We almost suffered another rip off when one bicycle shop owner wanted to charge us 20 lira (~US$17) for a single bicycle box. Luckily, we found another shop where we got two boxes for 15 lira.


Next stop Wilmington, North Carolina, USA!

Sea and Snow

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

We had a great four rest days in the coastal city of Varna. We managed to get a great deal on a hotel apartment unit that included a tiny kitchen, cable TV, and free wireless internet. The one downside to staying in Varna was the city’s water situation. We’re not sure what exactly was going on, but the entire city was without running water for almost two full days. We couldn’t take showers or flush our toilet, and had to wash our dishes out with bottled water. But having free internet, TV, and a few days in one place more than made up for the water problems.

We left Varna on Friday and rode 70 km south down the Black Sea coast. We expected the road to follow the actual coastline, but it is actually a few kilometers west of the sea. Instead, we rode through rolling hills and forested countryside for the whole day. The trees here are all yellow and looked like they were glowing in the afternoon sun.


Beginning about 10km outside the city of Varna we started noticing single girls standing alone on the side of the road. They were spaced out almost exactly every kilometer, in the middle of nowhere, and they were wearing crazy outfits. Stuff like micro-mini denim shorts with pantyhose, mini-skirts that were 3-4″ long, shiny white boots with stiletto heels, sequined tank tops, etc. They looked bored and lonely, so we said hi to them as we rolled past. I wonder what they were doing out there…? Just kidding.

We finally got to see the actual Black Sea as we rolled into the resort town of Obzor at the end of the day.


The number of hotels in these Black Sea resort towns in amazing. They are everywhere and more and more are being built. This place must really be a madhouse in the summer. Right now almost everything is shut down for the season though, and rightfully so because today we departed Obzor for Burgas and ran into a snowstorm!


The day actually started out sunny, but it turned nasty after about 25 kilometers of climbing. We were up at 500 meters, huffing and puffing along and admiring the snowdrifts on the side of the road, when all of the sudden the sky clouded over and it started to snow. It was funny at first but quickly lost its humor as the wind picked up and things started to get really bad. We had cycled into a blizzard. The Bulgarian drivers thought we were nuts; more than one raised his hands to us to say “What the heck are you thinking?” Luckily the storm disappeared just as quickly as it arrived, but the damage was done. We were now wet and the temperature had dipped to around 3 degrees Celsius. Not exactly ideal cycling weather.

So, instead of continuing on to Burgas we stopped for the day in Slancev brjag, another town of massive hotels. The good news is we still have 10 days to reach Istanbul, so we aren’t really in a hurry. We’ll continue to slowly make our way down the coast until we reach the Turkish border.

November Rain

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

There she is, the famous Black Sea.


We reached the Black Sea in Varna, Bulgaria after a two day ride from the Romania-Bulgaria border marked by the cold November rain that is quickly becoming a constant in our lives. Oh well, nothing lasts forever…

We also hit another important milestone on our way here. At 12:48pm EET on November 3rd, while cycling on a cold, windy ridge about 9 kilometers north of Varna, Sarah hit 10,000 kilometers on her odometer. She has now officially entered the realm of cycling goddess!


Since we arrived in Varna, we’ve been victory posing on the beach and wandering around the city. Varna is the most touristy city we’ve been in for quite a while. There is a huge pedestrian zone with upscale shopping and restaurants and a giant seaside park. The city is pretty quiet right now though; most of the discos along the beach are already closed for the season.


Despite her impressive quads, Sarah is feeling a bit worn out from the five-figure odometer reading, so we are going to rest here for a couple of days before heading down the coast to Turkey.

Goodbye Romania

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

It was hard to say goodbye to Romania. We had one of our worst days ever followed by two of our best and in the end we didn’t want to leave the country.

The day after Jamie’s golden birthday brought us 80km and 5 hours of cycling in pouring rain and 10°C weather. Matters were made worse by a fierce headwind that not only made it hard to cycle but also chilled us to the bone. Not too fun. We resorted to saying desperate things to each other pretty early in the day. Stuff like “Only 50km left!” (FYI that’s over three hours of cycling), and “Can you go farther without eating? If we stop we will probably freeze to death!”

At the halfway point we gobbled our lunch of bread and cheese as quickly as possible while standing on the side of the road. Jamie said the rain made our bread taste like a baby had been sucking on it for awhile.

We got sprayed by passing cars and trucks all day as they tore through the standing water on the roads. As a result, we were completely covered in road dirt by the end of the day. By my estimate, approximately 90% of the “dirt” on the country roads in Romania is horse and cow manure. Gross.

I also developed what is known as an “ice claw” during the course of our ride. My gloves were so wet that after lunch I decided it was gross to put them back on. That was a stupid idea. Within 15 minutes my hands were frozen into claws molded around my bicycle handlebars. These ice claws lacked opposable thumbs and I believe best way to imagine them is to picture the hands on Lego Men.

We now know that close to 100% of our waterproof gear has failed at this point, after 10 months of cycling. Only one piece of gear is still keeping things dry – our Ortlieb panniers. Our jackets, drybags, waterproof gloves, and waterproof hiking boots are all leaking. We have given up on trying to stay dry during a day of cycling. It is better to focus on wearing enough clothes to keep warm and then finding food that you can eat without stopping so you can stay warm.

When we reached our stopping point of Oltenita we began to search for the one hotel the town was supposed to have. Wanting to find it as quickly as possible, I asked the first person that walked past us where the hotel was. Unfortunately I have quite a knack for asking crazy people for directions. Not kidding. So of course, this guy wasn’t able to help us find the hotel and instead he followed us around for the remainder of our search mumbling about French and English and sometimes offering his phone to me. In the end we found the hotel though and settled in to dry our gear and warm back up.

The next day was beautiful, with a blue sky and sunny warm weather. The ride was great with the only event of the day being a flat tire on my bike. This is only our second flat in Europe – not bad! After 70km we reached the town of Calarasi. We stopped at one hotel but the price was 150 lei (~US$65.00) and the receptionist wouldn’t negotiate so we decided to look around some more. After a little more searching we found another hotel on the other end of town and met Daniel the owner. He was a really nice 27 year old Romanian guy who spoke excellent English. After we got settled in our room, Daniel invited us to have dinner with him in the hotel’s restaurant where we tried some delicious turkey soup, pork stuffed peppers, and deer with polenta. He told us about his business, which organizes and leads hunting parties. His family has a gigantic ranch right on the Danube where they can hunt for pheasant, quail, wild boar, and much more. After dinner he brought us on a quick sunset tour of his beautiful ranch where we saw sheep, ducks, geese, and about 15 hunting dogs. We absolutely loved it and were blown away by his hospitality.

The next morning Daniel knocked on our door and invited us down to breakfast. It was fun to skip our usual muesli and yogurt and enjoy another meal with Daniel. During breakfast we were joined by his cousin, Aristotle, who also worked in the family hunting business. We’d originally been planning to continue on our way after breakfast, but when Daniel and Aristotle invited us to have coffee with them in their favorite cafe, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

After sipping some espresso and discussing life in Romania, we decided to pay another visit to Daniel’s ranch to see some of the hunting dogs in action. These are two little four month old puppies going nuts for some fresh chicken!


The dogs were all so excited when they realized a few were about to get to go on a hunting expedition. We felt sorry for the ones that didn’t get selected for the outing.


Daniel and Aristotle picked four adult dogs and the two puppies for a walk through the woods to look for birds. We all loaded into a truck to drive to our scouting location.


It was so much fun to walk through fields and forests on such a beautiful fall day. The dogs went crazy running all over the place sniffing for birds, the puppies followed the adults and tried to copy everything they did, and we walked along with them spotting the birds they scared up. In addition to birds we found a place a wild boar had wallowed in the river mud and another place he’d scratched himself and his nasty mud on a tree trunk.


As we were driving back to town from the ranch, Daniel turned to James and said, “Hey, do you want to get a haircut?” James was way overdue for a trim so we happily trotted over to the barbershop where James got a European-chic haircut. Daniel wouldn’t let us pay at the barbershop and then turned to me and said “Now it is your turn!” He brought me to his friend’s beauty parlor where I was treated to a trim and a manicure. I was shocked (and delighted) to say the least. Talk about hospitality!

James’s first mullet! Eurostyle baby!



We then went back to Daniel’s hotel and ate more delicious Romanian soup and about 10lbs of grilled chicken and pork each. But the day wasn’t over yet! Daniel and Aristotle were driving the 115km to Bucharest that evening and invited us to come along. We were originally planning on skipping the city because it would be a several day ordeal for us, but a short car ride made it much more appealing, so we decided to join them. We left Calarasi at 5pm and arrived in Bucharest only one hour later. Here we are posing outside of The Home of the Nation.

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After taking a few tourist-style photographs we went to dinner at a nice restaurant owned by Daniel’s friend, called Palladium. It was delicious and so much fun to be hanging out in a fancy restaurant with our new haircuts and my new manicure! After dinner it was off to the giant shopping mall for the 3rd espresso of the day and then we returned to Calarasi and headed off to bed.

Aristotle, Jamie, and Daniel.

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The next day we woke up to gray skies and more rain, but we really felt like we should get on the road to Istanbul, so we decided to leave. We had so much fun with Daniel and Aristotle we seriously considered staying a couple of more days, but in the end we hit the road. The border was only about 10 kilometers from Daniel’s hotel but before we made it there another hotel owner pulled up in his car and asked us if we wanted to have some coffee and food at his hotel. Romanian hospitality is amazing!

Eventually we did make it across the border though. Now we will head southeast across Bulgaria until we hit the Black Sea where we will turn south.