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Le Cœur de France – from X to X

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After the chichi aloofness of the south, the mountains of the Massif Central came as a relief for the soul and a refreshment for the mind; people was sincere, cordial and honest again, and the landscape was just beautiful.
Only once, the day after Ascension day, I got into the traffic jam out of Apt where I had observed a man in the middle of the crowd, explaining with wild gestures his daily morning procedures to two others, ending with the apparently true statement „J’suis débordé“ („I’m completely confused“). I left the caravanes behind and headed for the Mont Ventoux, the famous Mecca for cyclists from all over Europe. I enjoyed their respectful or pitiful gazes on my burdened bike, but I was by no means intending to burn energies for nothing on that mountain. I cycled round it and got into hills soon enough, when the road climbed to the quite relaxed bohemian village Die, and, after a rest day, further to the Col de Rousset at 1254m. Surrounded by these white-capped mountains, cycling through the freshly green, flowery meadows, life felt just alright.
In the late afternoon, I crossed the Gorges de la Bourne, remembering the peruvian Canon del Pato and deeply impressed by this masterstroke of engineers in the early 19th century: hanging down from ropes, they put dynamite into small holes and pushed off. Some paid with their lives when they swung back too early… But I was in trouble myself: the steep hillsides were no camp spot and the plateau afterwards with pastures in a beautiful twilight no place to hide. It got later and darker, too late to ask for accomodation in this rural area and too dark to find a good spot. I somehow knew that something would happen when I cycled onwards into the darkness, and it happened: at about 10 p.m., on a side road, I met a man who got aware of that glint of despair in my face – the evening with Cathy and Didier, exchanging travel experiences and ways of life, was one of these unexpected, undeserved encounters which sometimes occur in moments of need.
Day became not day the other day. It kept raining when I descended to Grenoble, when I crossed one of the first tunnels in the Alpes, Les Echelles, when I passed Chambéry, until I reached Aix-les-Bains. But I could not have felt better.
From X to X, I cycled for 437km and 5.335 height meters.

The South of France

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There is no sorrow like the murmur of their wings
There is no choir like their song
There is no power like the freedom of their flight
While the swallows roam alone …
And will the silence strike confusion from your soul
And will the swallows come again?
J.Baez, Swallow Song

The next village after the gorges was Rennes-les-Bains, and I sat down there on the sunny terrace of a bakery to have a cup of tea. A strange bulletin catched my eye: „it is not permitted to smoke anything else than tobacco here!“. I wondered until I saw a group of bearded young man with guitars and slacks like skirts coming around the corner.
The road followed green valleys up and down through cosy villages which all came up with at least one castle or church from the 12th century. But even the houses did not look more recent. The streets were crowded with mobil homes driven around by Germans, Dutch, but mostly by French people, and the price level was accordingly touristic: no meal below 12€ and the French restaurant plates are not of the right size for cyclists anyway. So I decided to stop bothering and never entered a restaurant anymore after the chocolate cake experience.
The landscape was more lovely than spectacular, the people were more polite than friendly, and as a scrubby cyclist, I clearly felt to not belong to this region. I just kept going, immersed in some melodies which kept turning in my head. I probably had not more encounters these days than in the desert of Bolivia, but once I got stopped in the middle of the road by a man in his car. The short talk with him turned into an interrogation, he asked without a single smile and took leave saying „À bientôt“. I got suspicious when I indeed met him two more times that day, I don’t know what he wanted but since I knew what I did not want I made him lose my track in the one-way streets of some medieval village.
Finding camp spots was no easy exercise in this densely populated area, but I had always a bunch of luck. Only one morning, at 5.30, I woke up by gun shots. Glimpsing into the dawn, I saw a ranger about 100m from my tent on the glade. He was away when I woke up again.
My destination was a village close to Aix-en-Provence where good friends of mine from my home town Musberg happened to spend their holidays: Marijke and Wolfgang had prepared me a cordial welcome. We passed these two days in profound conversations about world politics and cultural discoverings, about the past and the future, exchanging experience and ideas, and they conveyed me the feeling that coming home one time was the right decision. With refreshed energies, I settled for the next stage: the beautiful cœur de France.
Since Lourdes, I had cycled for 1.028km and 12.515 height meters.

Die restlichen Pyrenäen (The rest of the Pyrenees)

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Über sieben Brücken musst du geh’n.

Equipped with a packed lunch of the lovely hostel warden Monique, whose heart still longed for Brazil, I headed for the pyrenees once more. Already before arriving Lourdes, I knew that with one crossing I would not have done them justice. The route I’ve picked from the map was one of the few crossings without any tunnel, but it counted with seven mountain passes, five of them in the Hautes-Pyrénées on the way to Seu d’Urgell and two in the Pyrénées Orientales on the way back to France. It turned out that the first two passes, Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde belonged to a part of the Tour de France: the road was marked with encouraging phrases and crowds of passionated racers attacked the hillsides à la E.Merckx. But I didn‘ meet a single touring biker. The forth pass, Bonaigua, with 2072m the highest one, showed me its teeth: just after the top, the sky opened all its watergates. In situations like these, you may don what you have, two jackets, rain pants, gloves, but it doesn’t help, the wetness gets to the bones. The wind whips you the freezing rain into the face, your knees start to shover, your reasoning slows down and focuses on one thing: get out of here. Your dumb hands clench the handle bars, you slide down among the streams and eventually you come out of the clouds and the sun smiles again. I did not camp out that night.
Even though it kept to be rainy all these days, I had more luck on the next passes. And I happened to think that there is probably nothing more joyful in the world than sailing down these beautiful green hills. Maybe climbing them.

From Lourdes to the last Col de Lineas, I’ve cycled for 489km and 8.026 height meters.
Karte folgt.

¡Buen Camino!

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It turned out that the picturesque town of Burgos had a nice library which made my stay longer than expected. I’d be there in the morning when it opened and in the evening until it closed, reading about two books a day: H.Schultz’s touching narrative about his turnover of Starbucks, books about entrepreneurship and marketing, and about „what Einstein may have told his hairdresser“, an interesting collection of the intricate questions of daily life (like what to do when in a falling lift). Burgos happens to be on the main track of the famous pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. That is a route from the South of France through the North of Spain, about 800km for about 40 days. You collect stamps all along the way in the accomodation facilities and the visiting spots and when you arrive Santiago with enough stamps you get a certificate in your language (if you did the camino „for private reasons“) or in latin (if you did it „for religious reasons“). That’s how the pilgrim system works.
One sunny afternoon, I stood in one of the lovely little pedestrian streets, when a man, for his accent an Austrian, came by in a rush shouting „¿peregrino, peregrino? ¿albergue, albergue?“ He immediately hastened away into the direction I pointed him to. This was my first encounter with a pilgrim in action. For two days in the lovely green hillsides (that is, upwards and downwards) to Logroño and Estella, I should meet more people than on the countryside of Southamerica in a whole year: friendly people of all ages and nationalities, struggling with the sun, moaning about theirs blebs, gathering in groups or solely. „You go in the wrong direction! Aren’t you on the camino?“ – „I’m just cycling here.“
While I respect them for their outdoor activity, I personally don’t share their preference to go for the beaten track: walking in the crowd, on a predefined way, in a prescribed direction, seeing preconceived things, sleeping in completely organized places. In Estella, I even spent a night in a pilgrim’s hostal, just for the experience. Light was eclipsed with the sun at 10 o’clock, the first left at 6 o’clock the next morning. With 40 snarkling people in one room, it was not the best sleep night of my life, but the atmosphere was pleasant: the home was run by a team of mentally impaired people who invited me for their pasta dinner – they had cooked about twice too much – and we spent a very funny evening.

Farewell, South America!

Me alegra tanto oir tu voz aunque dormido,
por fin viajabas como en tus sueños
buscando un sitio para volver,
y sin poder olvidar lo que dejas, lo que has aprendido,
van a cambiar las caras, los sueños, los dias
y yo lentamente te pierdo.

Ella baila sola, Cuando los sapos…

When this article gets published, I’ll be 10km above ground level flying back to Europe. Already during these last weeks I lived the gentle farewell, the beginning of my slow home coming. I knew that I was going to experience some things for the last time here, the last camp night out there under a starry sky, the last orange full moon (which grows here from the left to the right hand side…), the last time to see the Southern Cross, the last view on the Pacific Ocean, the last time to eat one of these delicious empanadas, the last ripio gravel road. Things get another meaning under this perspective. What will be the last word you speak on this continent? What will be your last perception, the last face you see?
I spent almost one year in South America, and what had started as a mere dream became the project of my life. Inch by inch I made my way through the continent, along coast lines, in jungle and deserts, crossing mountains and planes. In sun and rain, in hail and heat, in wind and dust. Passing lonely countrysides, passing wooden shacks, passing farm buildings, passing mansions, passing modern cities. I have seen desperate poverty, men struggling for a living, I have seen those who made it. I met people who shared their home with me, the stranger, who willingly let me take part in their overwhelming happiness and strong confidence, people who welcomed me with curiosity and open-hearted cordiality, people who live their culture, their beliefs. I’ve experienced a friendliness and helpfulness never expected. I felt closer to life than ever before.
Returning to Europe will be hard, and, as a friend of mine once formulated, I somehow envy this wonderful continent to continue existing while I’ve left it. For some times, I felt inclined to follow the temptation, to cancel the flight and to start directly a living here, like anyone started from scratch who started a living in a foreign country. But I know that, in the given situation, things would not get round. I am coming home now. My last word was: gracias!

I cycled here for 126.825 altitude meters (which is like climbing the Mt.Everest 14 times – with a 40kg backpack) and for 11.038km (which is about 3.2 times the diameter of the moon – or about 29thousandths of its mean distance to the earth…).

Southern Cross

Southern Cross (src: http://es.uruguay-fotos.com/15482-7/Kreuz+des+Suedens.jpg)

Faces of a City

„In spite of wars and tourism and pictures by satellite, the world is just the same size it ever was. It is awesome to think how much of it I will never see. It is no trick to go round the world these days, you can … fly round it nonstop in less than forty-eight hours, but to know it, to smell it and feel it between your toes you have to crawl. There is no other way. Not flying, not floating… Then the world is immense. The best you can do is trace your long, infinitesimally thin line through the dust and extrapolate. I drew the longest line I possibly could, that could still be seen as following a course.“ T.Simon, Jupiter’s travels
Well, the situation consolidated when I found a safe place to leave the bicycle in the town center’s hostel. The only way to really discover a city is to walk. I walked a lot, I walked for hours, I walked for days. I walked the streets of copple stone in the tango quarter San Telmo, I went to the modern district of Puerto Madero, skyscrapers along the former city harbour, and to the rougher neighbourhood of La Boca, where just some blocks from the picturesque touristic scenery of colourfully painted houses elflock children play in the foul gutter. I crossed the residential areas of Monserrat and Balvanera, with their deep and dark urban canyons between the highrisers (see the impressive aerial photos 1 and 2), and the more cosy places of the Paris-like Palermo Viejo and the wealthy Recoleta with their 19th century buildings. I’ve seen people sleeping on cardboard mattresses in the streets, people with tired time-worn faces who since long have given up to fight, elegantly dressed ladies pushing the buggy on the green playgrounds in the sunny afternoons, business men running in the streets hounded by their loneliness, elder women selling flowers on bus stops and men in old-fashioned suits sitting around in bars sipping an eternal cup of coffee.
But the evenings found me in what I may have missed these last months, in the theatre, in the cinema (with a poignant Argentine movie) and, of course, in a tango show: a highly virtuosic presentation of various aspects of traditional and modern tango, with fancy dresses and a precisely dosed erotism. I could have watched that for the rest of my life.
But I somehow cannot resist the temptation to reassemble the completely dismantled bike to head for a last back-country trip in South America.

Songs my father taught me

How many roads must a man walk down
before you call him a man
B.Dylan, Blowing in the wind

People ask me what I think during these long hours riding the bicycle. To be honest: not too much. I am more occupied with the landscape around, with the road conditions, the traffic, with taking pictures. Sometimes I think of future projects, I sing or listen to music, and once in a while I utter sudden bursts of laughter when I remember obscure or funny situations of the journey I was part of. And many memories which come and go reach further back, reach back to youth and childhood. One of my earliest mind pictures is my father sitting on one of these dark brown leather couches so common in the 80ies, his guitar in his hands and playing and singing. We had a whole series of song books, liederwolke, liederbaum, etc. and he sang a lot in those days, songs from his own youth like the golden „Jenseits des Tales“, the wistful „Lili Marleen“ („und wenn die späten Nebel dreh’n, wer wird bei der Laterne steh’n“) and more recent ones, „Donna, Donna“, „Lady in Black“, Dylan, „Good night, ladies“, „Bolle reiste jüngst zu Pfingsten“, „Nehmt Abschied Brüder“.
I still remember every single line of these songs. Each song formulates an own perspective on the world, each one presents considerations on situations known to all of us, each one teaches us something about human nature. But the most I learned about people was from the example of my father himself. I’ve never met a man with such an intuitive knowledge of human nature, with such an ability to listen as my father.
On this particular journey, I had to deal anytime with new encounters, I always had to rely on the help of others, be it for shipping me over an impassable lake, aiding me to get a cardboard box or just to watch the bike for a moment while in a shop. The aptitude to open people and to know whom to trust I owe to my father. On the occasion of his birthday I wish him all the best!

Chile: Farewell

When first coming to Chile, I was perturbed to find the western culture so predominant there, and cycling felt like cycling in a South American version of Switzerland. But in fact, it is not. Soon, I learnt to see the shades: people and their relaxed mentality made all the difference. And then came the Southern part, Carretera Austral and tierra del fuego, and I loved cycling in the rain forest, under glaciars, in wide open land, and in the remote little villages the rough spirit of true pioneers at the last frontier of civilization. It was still the adventure I’ve been enjoying for so long.
I hope that people is proud and aware enough to resist the temptation to destroy these precious and pure natural reserves in the last corner of our planet for the shortsighted commercial interest of particular companies (see the threat of HydroAysen and the campaigns against).
In this somehow last stage of my journey, I often felt that circles closed back to the beginning: words I’ve last heard in Colombia popped up again, and people were just as welcoming: I thank the lovely family of Pino-Burgues who gave me a home in Santiago, the three girls and Ricardo with whom I spent such a jaunty time in the lake region and not least the warm farewell at the frontier with Judith, Alejandro and Claudio.
These people and many others made my stay so intense and fortunate – actually the longest time I’ve spent in a single country on the whole trip.
I cycled in Chile for three months, 2.409km and 23.600 altitude meters.

The Remains of the Day

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I spent some rest days in Punta Arenas, reading, writing, hiking in the Nacional Reserve Magallanes nearby and thinking of what has been and of what will be. Only recently, my brother Andrej won a prize in a speech contest and I was touched to read his text collecting some memories of our wild youth: „those who live are those who fight“.
Yesterday, I got a notice from Andy, my old friend from the days back in Ecuador: taking completely different ways through the continent, we are close again – it would have been fun to meet him! But he’s still in Calafate and his journey will end in Punta Arenas, while I am going to carry on tomorrow for the last stage of my bicycle adventure in South America, for about eight days in the loneliness of tierra del fuego down to Ushuaia.

La ultima frontera

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Arriving in Villa O’Higgins, I went straight to the office of Robinson („return to freedom“) who run the ferry over Lago O’Higgins, a very costly traject of three hours for a trek to Argentina. I was just aghast when they told me that the ship was cancelled „because of the strong wind“. Their false pretences immediately reminded me of an adventure with my father in the North Sea time ago: we had rented surf boards and the low tide pulled us far out. The hirer came to our rescue in a small canoe. Having only one paddle, he got into serious problems himself, and we ended up pulling our boards and him in his boat, swimming in the cold water. He denied to rent surf boards the next days due to the ever „strong breeze“.
Now, there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, not even a cash point, and running out of reserves and on the race to meet my mother in some days, getting stuck in Villa O’Higgins was not the best situation. Asking around for another means of transport, a chain of about five people brought me to Señor Vidal, a fisherman running a boat for supplies of the frontier station on the other side. Together with Jens and David whom I had met again on the campsite, we were lucky to contract him to ship us over the lake early the next morning. There was no wind at all, of course, the water was perfectly blue and calm, but we soon realized that there was some trouble ahead: after hard climbing on gravel, the road turned into a mere trekking path on the Argentine side and we had to work our way pushing the bikes over bridges of single tree trunks, through deep mud and river streams and through labyrinths of wooden roots. Pushing down on a steep and narrow descent, Jens once broke the fixations of one lowrider bag and later got a loose spoke punching his leg.
Nevertheless, we made it to El Chaltén after a rainy night, a touristic village famous as basecamp for ascents of the beautiful needle of Cerro Torre (see next post). Continuing to El Calafate („the barberry“), we felt rewarded for all these efforts with best weather and a strong tail wind, but for the last 32km the road turned directly into the storm and gave us a hard struggle for four hours. Stepping out of storm and darkness into a hostel, it seemed like a wonder when I opened the door and found my mother waiting for me – a precise encounter on the other side of the world, scheduled months ago.