21 January 2010

Continental breakfast going somewhere...

In this little Swiss village I had my first western breakfast from the entire trip. A true continental breakfast. I savored it, before checking the state of my soaked clothing. Luckily most of it was dry. I left the little town and was soon again driving through the amazing landscape of Swiss Alps. It struck me that this would be my last day driving. Tonight I would arrive in Belgium.

I crossed the French Swiss border, filled the tank with cheap fuel in Luxembourg and before I know it I entered Belgium. Little blue sign “Belgique”, surrounded by a circle of shiny stars. No hassle, an abandonded customhouse, no one to check. Before I knew it I was riding on Belgian roads. I made it. Apparently summer was good in Belgium. Temperatures were flirting with the 30 degree mark on the thermometer. I soaked in the Belgian hilly landscape and made a first stop at this roadside bar. I could not resist the ugliness of the big plastic “pakse friet” on their porch. I ordered a beer, and felt strange. I tried to explain to the barmaid that it would be my first Belgian draught in a couple of months. That I had just driven 11000 km from Qatar. She smiled, nodded and went on serving the other clients. I wished I had the ability of reading people’s thoughts, to understand what she was thinking. I was back in Belgium, not that much had changed.

The last 160 km of my journey were kind of a rush. I made a stop in Brussels to visit some friends before driving the last kilometers in a beautiful Belgian summer sunset. A red setting fire to the meadows and patches of forest along the concrete highway to Ghent. In Ghent I pulled the bike on its stand for the last time; people were enjoying the soft summer evening in the central court of my new residence. I ordered my second Belgian beer, and before long I was entangled in a conversation with another adventurous soul. He told me about how he took his Yamaha straight through the heart of the Australian Outback a couple of years ago. I might just have finished this journey but it felt great making plans for future trips. I felt that I had arrived somewhere, for now, anyway…

Rain, Snow, Hail

The ferry brings us without problem to Ancona. After a quick custom check I disappeared into the busy morning traffic on the narrow Italian highway. I pushed on and on and on. Only stopping for short rests, food and fuel. I crossed the border with Swiss in the late afternoon. I had not yet completed ten kilometers when it began raining. Not a little shower, no. It started pouring down, as if somebody just ran over a fire stand in New York City on a scorching August afternoon. My leather jacket withstood the downpour for exactly 30 seconds, before the water just went straight through it. I could feel the rain gushing into my boots. Visibility was non-existing, cars on the highway pushed their way through at a walking pace, and I was driving through 15 centimeters of water. After the rain came snow followed by a violent gulf of hailstones. All this happened in a ten minutes time span. The world seemed to vanish in water. And then it vanished full stop as I entered a tunnel. Not even a very long tunnel. As I emerged at the other end an idyllic alpine landscape lay in front of me. I felt as if I were a small figurine on an orange motorbike in a Märklin model train set up. The most surprising thing however was that the weather was lovely at this end of the mountain. I was soaked to the bone and gradually feeling colder and colder as I pushed on. I stopped at the first gas station, had a steaming hot coffee, bought myself a newspaper, the fattest newspaper they had, I couldn’t care about the news, but there is no such wind-stopper as a fat paper tucked under your riding jacket. For it to work properly however you need a dry motor jacket. My paper just soaked up all the water and became a heavy soaked lump after ten minutes. Luckily for me I approached the Gotthard tunnel. Normally I would not look forward to the idea of being underground for 17 kilometers in an exhaust-fumed environment, but this time I enjoyed the slow ride and the stinking artificial 27-degree temperature. The end of the tunnel was also the end of the my riding day, so I left the highway and found myself a small hotel in Altdorf.

Ferry Tales 3X

The boat to Chios looks like one of these beachlanders from the opening scene of Spielberg’s Saving private Ryan. Small and noisy. We are only five passengers for the one-hour crossing to the tiny Island of Chios. My official crossing to Europe. I install myself on the roof deck, where I meet Giorgos(www.giorgos-moutafis.com). He is panting heavily and looks tired. He is tired he tells me. He just spent two days looking for smugglers to accept him for the illegal crossing from Izmir to Greece, with no such luck. He is a freelance photographer. Sorry, a hardcore freelance photographer, making a story about illegal North African refugees trying to reach Europe through Turkey. He shows me amazing pics (he travels light, two cameras (Canon and Leica), a sleeping bag and a Mac Book Pro). The crossing is the last episode of his Documentary. He feels he needs one last picture from within a forlorn tiny boat, amidst real refugees on a real crossing. He feels he needs to make that journey, starting from the same point as his subjects. So he spent two days looking for smugglers, trying to convince them to take him on their lucrative crossings. No luck this time. He has to go back to Athens, refund and sort out what the legal risks are if he gets caught during his trip. We talk the entire trip. Before I realize it we are in Chios. I am in Europe. Customs was a joke. I tried to get a European insurance, with no such luck. I will be crossing a couple of countries with no room for error, on the insurance level. Giorgos and I decide to meet up later on the night ferry to Athens.

After a refreshing beer and my first pork meat in two months I line up at the dock and see the huge ferry glide in the harbor. On the top deck I meet up with Giorgos. We get some Belgian Stella’s and talk some more. Giorgos talks about his reality, I am talking to someone who is living a life I dream to have. We get some more beers, before getting in our sleeping bags. I fall asleep with the sight of a zillion stars above me and the sound of the heavy pounding diesel engines. I sleep.

I wonder if he got the picture.

The ferry docked at seven in the morning in Athens. I said farewell to Giorgos and hit the road for Patras, 200 km to the Northwest of the capital of Greece. Halfway I treated myself on a greasy burger in a roadside McDonalds. Degeneration started to creep in. Patras. Greece. Greece is motorcycle-loving country. Patras is the Mecca for two wheeled monsters in Greece. As I entered town, I passed Yamaha, Suzuki, Harley Davidson, Motto Guzzi and finally a KTM/Ducati workshop. As I had some time to spare, before catching the ferry to Ancona, Italy, I had an oil change done, the first proper oil change in almost two months. The mechanic also fixed the clutch and told me that I should take better care of my bike. Maybe I should and maybe I should not, monster or not, it is still a machine. Three ‘o clock, I am aboard the enormous ferry that will take me to Ancona. It is like a floating temporary city. I install myself on the deck, next to the swimming pool for the sixteen-hour journey. I try not to listen to the Flemish truck drivers tanning their protruding enormous guts while discussing the latest models of trucks and one of the guy’s girlfriend. Listening to them makes me feel unmanly and soft. Therefore I plunge myself in the fictive world of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the time of cholera. I finish the book and feel sad. The magic sunset sweeps me of my feet with nostalgia. My journey is over. I find myself a free hard deck bench and try to sleep.

Missing the boat (of life)

I wake up in Cesme. The end of June, mornings are still fine. I enjoy my breakfast in the garden in the company of a trendy Turkish family. Mom and dad are on holiday with their two sons and grandchildren. The respective mothers are too fashionable for this environment. But they are having a great time, young people making the best of what life has to offer them. Mothers taking care of the kids while the fathers typing and skyping for last minute business. Successful self-made men. I observe but do not understand. Do I wish to be like them? I am confused.

I pack the bike and drive off in the hills. The boat to Chios is only going at 5 pm. I have time to kill. Drive. Read. Write.

Aphrodisias Blood Horror

Today I continued my way from Anamur through Antalya, leaving the beautiful coastal scenery behind me, heading inland to the temple of Aphrodisias. In vain, because it was closed for the day. And in vain for love, although I still had some kind of hope then. I got a room in the Aphrodisias hotel, the only hotel in ‘town’. It was a huge affair set in a bewildered garden. My room was at the end of the hallway, to the left. I felt very uneasy in this place. It was incredibly quiet. Too quiet. It was not only the hotel, the building but also the surroundings. On the deserted rooftop terrace I looked out over the yellow and brown hills sloping as far as I could see in a 360-degree view. It was 5 pm and this landscape was silent and totally immobile. It made me feel far away from everything. As cold as the building made me feel, as warm was the reception I got from the owner, Mestian. He prepared me a delicious dinner and told me his story. He was born in this area, moved to Paris when he was in his mid-twenties and started selling carpets, from his natal region. He married a Parisienne, his business flourished and they decided to invest in this hotel, which they ran for over 20 years (mostly his wife). But then his wife got cancer and had to return to France. Things were never the same in the hotel. Mestian lost interest and was now looking for someone to take over the hotel. “Are you interested?”, well I might, but I did not have two million euros… We had a last Turkish coffee; I wished him all the luck in the world and went to bed. I felt a rush of goose bumps on the way to my room; this hotel would be an ideal setting for a cheap horror film, in which half of the budget is spent on fake blood.

Total silence was again the first thing that I noted when waking up in this strange hotel embedded in the brown hills surrounding Geyre. I visited the historical site of Aphrodisias in the morning. Tucked away in the landscape were numerous ruins of what once was a buzzing Roman city. Everything in the surroundings reminded me of fertility and the stories that Mistan, the hotel owner, had told me the night before. From Geyre I headed for Izmir. On the way I had my first flat tire. For that I was prepared. I changed the tire and arrived at Izmir just after noon. Soon I realized that no ferry was departing from Izmir. To catch a ferry I had to drive to Cesme, 100 km more to the West. I arrived in Cesme, just to miss the last ferry of the day. I found myself a cozy hotel with a rooftop terrace. Beer and thoughts under a warm night sky. Tomorrow.

bottom blisters

Today I pushed on from Iskenderun to Anamur. I drove and drove and drove. For the first time on my trip, I was suffering from a sore bottom. I spent the afternoon riding upright/standing on the bike, because it was too painful to sit down while riding.


I spent five days in Damascus. I love Damascus. It is the atmosphere that, most of all, makes me feel happy. I met two fellow motorcycle travelers, Bas en Eva. The were Belgian and were on a four month trip circling the Mediterranean Sea on the back of two Honda TransAlps. The backbone of their journey were ‘lullabies’, everywhere they came they recorded local lullabies (www.slaapkindjeslaap.be). I loved them right away and we spent some wonderful days together exploring Damascus and its surroundings.

I left Damascus, with the intention of heading to the East, to Palmyra. Somewhere trapped in the gridlocked suburb traffic my panicked and trampling thoughts ordered my brains to forget it all and push on to Belgium. This was the start of couple of days on which only the traveled amount of kilometers mattered. I left Damascus and drove to Turkey sleeping in an ugly tourist town of Iskenderun.

Floating away

I arrived in Madaba. I stayed in this amazing comfy hotel for a couple of days, visited the Dead Sea and savoring good food, the sun and the pool.

I spent my last day in Jordan in the university city of Irbid. I crossed the border in Ramtha and drove to Damascus.

Noblesse obliges

In the same way as I arrived at the tent of the Bedu family I said farewell. No big gestures. Goodbye, Ins’Allah, drive safe and I was back on track. They are accustomed to inviting people and leaving is part of the deal, it is part of arriving for the Bedu.

I made my way up to Madaba. On the way I visited two crusader castles. Imposing structures, build on impossible hilltops. Overlooking the remains and the surrounding it is not hard to understand that many of the crusaders stayed here and settled in fortified settlements in the name of their religion. The castle at Shoubak, was besieged for 18 months before it finally fell. I wound my way down into the rock through a narrow secret pass way, which only gave into daylight, 60 meters deeper and 300 meters from the castle walls. The second castle was in Karak, a little hilltop town with maddening one-way streets that drove me totally crazy in the midday heat. The entire town looked, as it was the busiest day of the week, people, stalls and vendors everywhere. It must have shown that I was lost; cause a helpful man asked me where I wanted to go. He showed me the way to the Karak Castle. Before tackling history I settled in an empty restaurant and enjoyed a cold beer and some mesas. That is the only thing the sweltering midday heat allowed. Fine with me…

Karak castle is imposing in several ways. The preservation of this castle is amazing. You wander through the dark hallways, military quarters, stables, kitchen…and it feels as if all the occupants just left the day before. The location on the highest point in the surroundings treats you on amazing 360-degree vistas of the surroundings. Wadi Karak stretches seemingly endless to the West of the castle. It is believed that this wadi was once the scene of Sodom and Gomorrah; peering into the void I tried to imagine how that would have looked.

A near vertical wall, covering the steep side of the rocky outcrop on which the castle is build, protects the east side of the castle. This wall, called glacis, was the terrific site of many deaths. Stories have it that the notorious Renauld de Chatillon threw countless prisoners of this wall to temper his vicious urge for cruelty. To ensure that his victims would feel the agonizing pain of this treatment, he would put a wooden box over their heads, to avoid them passing out to quickly. Nasty.

In the winter of 1183, Karak Castle was the stage of a choreographed marriage to reunite quarrelling Frankish factions. The leader of the Islamic armies seized the town and tried to conquer the castle. The wedding went on and the bride had some of the wedding dishes sent to Saladin. In return Saladin informed on where the young couple would be celebrating their first night, then ordered his men not to bombard this part of the castle. Battle in style. Noblesse obliges.

20 January 2010

I have to see about this woman

Why was this blog not finished in real time? Well I lost it in Damascus. I succumbed to my fears, concerning me, a certain blonde lady and the (im)possibility of a combined future. The best I can do to explain is to refer to a scene from Good Will Hunting from Gus van Sant. Will’s (Matt Damon) shrink tells him that he missed a historic ball play because he had to ‘see about this girl’ (which he married and loved madly until she died from cancer). The film ends showing Will, posting a note in the mailbox of his shrink. The note says:” Tell the professor I have the job, but I will not be in on Monday, because I have to see about this girl.”.

Well, I was in Damascus and I had to see about ‘this girl’ in Belgium. I am, however, not a character in a film, so the possibility of a combined future appeared to be non-existing.