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On Assignment Dispatch 3: Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey

I wrote recently how I feel like I’m using this bike ride from Milan to Armenia as a dress rehearsal for the ride around Armenia. I’m excited and nervous and desperate for everything to go right for us when we’re there. I want to fall in love with Armenia more than any other place I’ve ever been. The history of the land there makes me want to go and just give it a long, aching embrace. I’ve done research and thought about it and now that we’re here, in the final stages of transit, riding a train across Turkey and only a couple days of pedaling from the border, that excitement is ready to burst. But this dress rehearsal is not yet over, and unlike an actual dress rehearsal this ride has been very much real and unscripted. The last 3,500 kilometers have been an adventure indeed. 

My last dispatch I wrote from a small riverside campground in Bosnia. In the three weeks since we’ve crossed six borders and into a new continent, ridden almost 2,000 kilometers and met so many characters. Bike touring is deceiving in it’s solitary image. You leave thinking you’ll be alone riding a bike all day. But in Europe, true solitary days are rare if not impossible. We met only one other bike tourer in the last three weeks, but a few cyclists. Recreational cycling seems to get more and more rare as you descend into the Balkans, to basically none in Albania, Greece and Turkey (that we saw at least), but the curiosity of people will never not be there. We’ve ridden through Muslim and Catholic areas; deserts, beaches, mountains and cities, and everywhere we get the same question. Sometimes broken English, sometimes just a motioning of the hands. I know what you want to know, person on the roadside. Where are we going, and where are we from?

There’s something so integrated into the human experience that everyone wants to know this thing. On the train now we met some boys who were very curious and we talked by handing google translate back and forth for hours. They’re going home via the train to Erzuzrum where they will take a drivers test to be permitted to drive big trucks. The one man (NAME Fekub?), 25 is married. They both ask me if Bo and I are married. Men in Turkey rub their fingers together and ask me if Bo and I are married all the time. That’s the third question we get mostly. Here, a Muslim majority country, we wake with the call to prayer from a nearby mosque most mornings. Marriage is a central concept to their culture. Yesterday we rode by a billboard and the woman on the advertisement was spray painted over. Bo rode by in shorts. This all feels a bit defiant. 

But before the train and racing across Turkey, we had to finish the ride here. A relentless heat wave blanketed the Balkans our last three weeks, and most days were above 100 Fahrenheit. We were forced into an exhausting rhythm of waking up before sunrise, getting on the bikes at first light, riding for six hours until noon, sleeping in the shade as best as we could (although it was impossible to sleep) and then riding until we found camp. We did this for the last three weeks, from the last dispatch in Bosnia until now we’ve slept past 7am four times. We’re exhausted. This stretch of riding has been far from forgiving. Our last day into Istanbul we were riding the shoulder of a freeway, in the heat, and into a 20-30mph headwind for six hours. We kept stopping with our thumbs out trying to hitchhike through the misery. But we pushed through it because after five minutes trying to get a ride the guilt would put us back on the bikes. We had come so far, to quit just then? We rode through searing heat and headwinds in Greece and Albania and Bosnia and Croatia. I put my music back in, my head down, and we rode it because that’s what we came so far to do. 

On this last stretch, as always, the kindness of the strangers has been humbling. In Macedonia we rode around a huge, high altitude, crystal blue lake on my birthday. We met a Dutch family who owned a lake house and let us camp in their garden and gave us food. In Greece we met a man spear fishing for squid in the reef of a quiet beach. He answered my endless questions and posed for photos and laughed when we stumbled through charades.

In Turkey, our first night, we stopped at a restaurant for food when the sun was going down. The man who owned the restaurant was all by himself and was so delicate with us. We were exhausted and worried about the upcoming section of riding. He let us camp in his yard, gave us extra food, and let us shower in his room. We met a cyclist in Montenegro who stopped and gave us route advice for an hour and talked politics for two. Multiple times I’ve ridden into bike shops in the middle of the day, sweating and exhausted and blabbering in English hoping to get some help with a bike issue and every time the mechanics have been so generous with their time and tools. On a ferry we were brought up for tea and a place to sit out of the sun. In Istanbul we had endless fun conversations. I could go on too… 

I say all of this because it’s a weird time, yet again, to be out on a big adventure. The IPCC just released a very damming report on climate change, and then the news coming out of Afghanistan felt even worse. Lately we’re jumping from one crisis to the next and I feel always so isolated but also so involved in them. Turkey has a very important relationship with Afghanistan and serves as the bridge for refugees to get into Europe. They will feel the effects almost immediately of the Taliban takeover and we see news of it everywhere here. When we were on the ferry and taken into the staff quarters for tea the news was on in the background. We were talking with some of the staff, but a man uninvolved in the conversation was watching the news and started banging his fists on the table. “Fuck you America!!” I had already disclosed that I was American, and it was bad.

I felt uncomfortable and related and so sad about what happened. Then, as we were approaching the border with Greece reports started popping up about the fires, both in Greece and in Turkey. They swept the lower half of the nation and displaced thousands. The heatwave we had been riding through was starting to reap very damaging results and the national park we were supposed to ride through in Macedonia was all closed off to visitors due to fire risk. We had to ride an extra 100km around it, all the time past very dry mountains and empty river beds. It seemed like everyone we talked to those days mentioned them. We read endless horror stories, but despite the tragedy in the news, I repeat that there is goodness in the world. I think the baseline state of humanity is kindness, and it is only through bikepacking I’ve learned that. The people here and most places I’ve ridden are unendingly generous with their time and their little belongings. They start and end conversations with a smile. I know the world is hurting. But I hope you also know that the world is still a beautiful place. 

So the dress rehearsal is coming to an end. We’re almost in Armenia and then the real work starts. The whole reason we’ve come this far. I hope it goes smoothly. I hope we learn good things and meet nice people and shoot good photos. Although nothing is guaranteed in traveling, bikepacking, or life in general, I have a good feeling about this next section. 

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