Elephant Highway

I have my eyes peeled. Zambezi teak trees line either side of the road, and there is so much more life lurking behind their silhouettes..The Caution: Wild Animals road signs are a constant reminder. On this road, one truly feels as though they are deep in the interior of the African continent.

Eagles are soaring with the ultimate freedom of the clouds. I watched one do several circles around the trees canopy without flapping its wings. Its call, ‘Caaaawww’ rings down like lightning from the clouds. On my bicycle, I try to emulate this graceful creature of the sky as I glide over the grasses alongside the road.

Hello Giraffe

Endless trees line the road for the entirety of the 600 kilometers from Kasane to Maun. We are able to just be with the bicycles and the surrounding landscape. The only distraction is a pair of giraffes peaking their heads above their lunchtime acacia bush. Even 400 feet away, Marsha and Marshall, as I called them, capitvate the entire scene. Their long necks magically dip down behind a tree and reemerge like someone coming to the surface of the water. Two horns, large white ears standing sideways, long jaws constantly chewing and a tongue the size of my forearm. The physical characteristics make it the large African mammal. What makes a giraffe special, however, is its serenity. Calm movements and gentle nature blend its tall, spotted body into the surrounding bushes. Seeing a giraffes is the thing that makes me feel most connected to the African wilderness.

But this road got its name for a reason. The vast expanse of northern Botswana, along with the Caprivi strip of Namibia, parts of Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe make up the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation area. Known as KAVA, the area holds 56% of the African elephant population. The area surrounding this solitary road, about twice the size of the United Kingdom, is home to thousands of the humble giants. In addition to potholes, cyclists passing down the road must watch for elephant droppings, usually about the size of a basketball. The fresh scat and toppled trees are a surefire sign one is in the presence of Earth’s largest land animal.

One hundred meters across the savannah opening, sprays of mud on wrinkled gray skin. A herd of fifteen is shielding themselves from the pounding subtropical sun. They fill their trunks with the muddy water and splash it onto their backs. The sight of this herd is a mixture of fireworks and a group hug. The large mothers shade the youngsters and the whole herd moves together. We stopped in awe of the group. Watching an elephant in its niche is stunning, majestic and a little terrifying when taking into account the actual size of the animals as they meander closer to where we are. I always wonder how they communicate so well, as if they know what each other are thinking as they walking along. The grace of their actions must be instinctual. The young follow closely to their mothers, and ass they grow, they will be able to teach their young the same techniques. Bending a tree by the trunk to eat its leaves, cool itself with mud and clear a path with its tusks are all uniquely elephantine abilities. In a follow-the leader manner, the group headed East, directly in front of us not more than 20 yards away. The matriarch leads the herd back into the expansive growth of Rhodesian teaks and acacia bushes. As ginormous as they are, they can still disappear from view into the ever-present wilderness.

I must have sat there watching for 45 minutes, minimum. He stood in the pasture munching grass by the bundle. His great trunk, flexible and strong, could uproot a large chunk of grass in a single swoop. He raised his trunk with a triumphant look. Elephants eat 400 kilograms of grass a day. His mighty feast was finished and he turned, headed back into the trees. as he disappeared into the afternoon sun, I heard his call, errrraaaahhh, as if his trumpeting trunk played a long goodbye note as he rejoined the vastness of the KAZA region. A sound that still rings in my ears as distinctly as the day I was riding through Botswana.

1700 to 0

The last leg of the Kenyan tour, from Nairobi to Mombasa, starts in the Central Highlands and ends in a beautiful white-sanded, Indian Ocean beach. So it’s all downhill, just with a couple uphills in between. Like the river that empties into the sea, this course has several bends that caress the African landscape in its path.

The Athi River leaves the congested capital city at 1700 meters of elevation. Factories are on either side of its banks. As it passes the urban complexes, it takes with it the memories of people’s past. The rain that falls on each person’s head falls runs along the ground beneath their feet. The stillness of the Sasama town square in the morning becomes an afternoon fury of every fruit, shoe, clothing item or artwork imaginable. IMG_3212[1]Markets full of Maasai traders move like the wind; fast paced negotiations of all the goods people desire. At the end of the day, the wind settles down like the people, to rest and begin the process the next day.

This river then rides over waterfalls and swift downhills with screaming exaltment.  Around the next bend, a long meandering and flat plain to gently glide over, with the sound of the wind blowing through the tall grasses. This meandering continues through the Serengeti plain until the river is met by the snowmelt coming from the region’s famous volcano. In the intersection, wildlife of all sorts to thrive from the river’s vitality.

IMG_3240[1]With lakes like Amboseli, herds of elephants migrate together to drink the water and eat the marsh’s luscious grass. In this niche of the African continent, elephants live alongside wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, and hippos that all rely on this snowmelt. The trade winds making the thick cloud layer on Kilamanjaro’s slopes make enough moisture to support all these wonderful creatures. If this volcano never erupted 1 million years ago, the plain would continue on, flat and undisturbed. This special part of the land provides the possibility for the animals that truly bring it to life.IMG_3402[1]

An acacia tree at the base of this mountain has such a majestic view. At sunrise, the silhouette forms an iconic horizon. Eye level to the giraffes, the branches look over the area like safari goers in the park. This narrow little perch upon the tree stands amid the marshland at Kilimanjaro’s base. Lions rest in the shade, cattle egrets fly low amongst the leaves and impalas prance in the bush. Iconic within any definitions of the country, this view portrays the land as well as a Mariam Makeba song or a Hakuna Matata reference. Each acacia tree continues the legacy of the land and provides a space for natural life, springing up from the soil.

This river has flowed to the contours of this land for all of the continent’s history. Now its neighbor is a beautiful road and a railway connecting the capital to the coast. 100 years ago, when its path was constructed, the men encountered the power of nature’s creatures. A lion mauled the railway workers, so the local town was named Simba, the Swahili word for lion. the name remains in memorial of the event and to honor the power of the animal. These creatures roamed the land far before the railway was linked. over the river valleys, the train tracks form bridges, connecting each side of the canyon rather than bending through it like the rivers and the roads. IMG_3364[1]

Having admired the Big 5 and all their friends around the lake the water drains out of Amboseli and continues its path to the coast. As it flows, the river contrasts against the red dirt soils of the land. Small watering holes fill rolling hills with marsh and brush, the birds’ favorite places. In flocks of 50 or 300, the tiny wings bounce back and forth in a rhythmic group. Their song and dance becomes the soundtrack to this journey to the coast. A morning symphony with an encore in the evening, the daily music harmonizes with the beats of the river’s flow.

As the river’s rapids echo the wingbeats of the Southern Hemisphere birds, the lower-lying land makes an oasis for large trees like the BAOBAB! These behemoths would stand out in any forest. The semi-truck sized trunk looks as though it was carved by a Roman sculptor. Gray with holes, this base is larger than most bouldering walls; the first branch is usually 5 meters up. It is thrilling to dangle the feet from. Each branch twists and bends in corkscrew and pretzel patterns. Being as wide as most other trees, the branches make a playground for the baboons like Rafiki and the people crazy enough to join them up in the Baobab tree. IMG_3442[1]

The peace and serenity of the Baobab is complimented by the luxurious taste of voluptuous mangoes. Sometimes the river is eager to flow downstream, rushing over the land. In oasis like this, a wetland with fruit, shade and simplicity, the water would stay forever if it could. The groundwater meanders up the roots of the tree and rests in the silhouette of a Kenyan sunset. The people gather to clean off the trials of the day, enjoy the company of fresh water flowing down the road. IMG_3462[1]

As gravity pulls the water closer to the ocean, the Athi river swooshes through the Tsavo National Park. The acacia forest bloomed green and yellow on either side for dozens of kilometers in either direction. A green-headed, brown bodied bird leaps from the tree, revealing its glimmering turquoise wings, as if the god of the sky took its color and hid it under the feathers of this bird.

Bigger than the semi trucks passing on the road, dozen elephants have lunch near a pond. The impalas graze below them, barely visible above the tall grasses. Seven haribu storks fly down in an organized pattern like paratroopers performing a magic show. A zebra comes down to drink water in the hot afternoon sun and trots off to the other side of the canyon. They all share the same water that sprinkles over the plains, making the ferric soils a thriving ecosystem.

The water then bends over the horizon and down the valley to the lowlands of Tudor estuary. The humid easterly trade winds bring the sea breeze to the fresh water coming from the Western inland. 500 kilometers from its start as rainfall in Nairobi, the fresh water meets the Indian Ocean in a brackish embrace. Every piece of dirt accumulated along the way gets released in the clean sweep of waves washing over the surface.

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360 Degrees and 365 Days

Every year as the calendar resets, we analyze where we are, where the last year has taken us and where we might be going in the future. And, like every beginning is another beginnings end, midnight on the 31st marks the end of an era. Especially for three drunken cyclists who cross the equator into the Southern Hemisphere at exactly that moment.

Crossing the equator as the clock struck 12 turned the whole world upside down. Dan, who owns a bar on the equator, admist shouts of “Oooooohhhh my gosh you did it!” And “Happy New Year” states that “The word equator has seven letters. So does the word bicycle. Coincidence, I don’t think so.”

And the 5,000 kilometers from Cairo to Nanyuki, Kenya has brought the Locos Ciclos’ bicycles exactly to the equator. Each day brought a new road, and the chance to be moving across the surface of the Earth. Halfway from 30 degrees north in Egypt and 30 degrees South in South Africa, this line in the sand is a definitive crossing.

Excited for the New Year, with resolutions like trying not to get so much mango in the beard and breaking the no-handlebar riding records, the rest of the road to Cape Town is looking incredible. Our compass says, “It’s heading South, and hopefully down-hill too, maybe, probably not, that’s okay,”

It also makes me realize the summation of days that make a year’s accomplishments. Spinning around our lovely sun, the Earth has traveled 940 million kilometers since the last January 1st 12:00 a.m. At 2.5 million kilometers per day, the Earth continually makes progress forward. The rotating globe, like our rotating bicycle tires, gain kilometers and kilometers slowly but surely. When you look back at the whole year, I can’t believe how far each little rotation took me.

Each fabulous inch that brought me across this African Continent has been extraordinary for its own reason, and I have so many reasons to be thankful for 2018. The most unbelievably legendary inches happened to be right on the equator, right as 2019 started.

When we stood at 0.000019 North, which is just a couple of feet above the equator, and pour water into a bowl with a hole at the bottom, the water will drain clockwise, and a little twig placed in the bowl will indicate this phenomenon.

Then we stood at 0.000019 South, which is literally as close as the front seat of a car to the back row, and poured the same water into the same draining bowl with the same little twig-and Wallah-it rotated to the left, counter-clockwise. (And yes, this would apply to toilets)

But the craziest thing was standing directly at 0.00000000 on the equator, where we poured the same water into the same bowl with the same little twig. The water drains straight downward, no motion at all.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Coriolis effect turns draining water clockwise. The physical shape of Earth’s rotation pulls the water to the right as it is moving downward, and the same force pulls water to the left in the Southern Hemisphere, and there is not a Coriolis force exactly on the equator because it is Earth’s widest point.

The few feet that make up this difference are just like those last 10 seconds of December 31st. New Years isn’t just a mark on the calendar but a reminder of getting 365 more glorious days. The equator is my reminder of the glorious 360 degree sphere we live on, just how big it really is, and how each few feet can make a monumental difference.

313

The following is an account of the 313km that we rode in two days through the Sahara Desert to reach the capitol of Sudan, Khartoum. This was our final ride in the Sahara, and it was certainly a ride to remember.

El Multaga, Sudan

8:00pm, day zero – We chowed down on our second dinner of the night. This time, cold beans and bread. The outpost town that we found ourselves in was the last hub of civilization before a massive swathe of Sahara that separated us and Khartoum. The nearly two hundred miles between us and Khartoum is trivial in a vehicle, but for us it was a challenge we had been thinking about for days.

8:30pm – Stuffed and stocked with provisions we took off into the night towards Khartoum. Each one of our bikes was loaded with 14 liters of water, an arsenal of canned beans, bread, Nogilla, citrus, and celebration mangos. Our goal for the evening was simply a place to rest our bones until a 3:30am start the next morning. The 303km to Khartoum sign was an imposing thing to see. Our final challenge presented by the vast Sahara Desert. Undeterred, we rode on into the darkness.

8:36pm – A military officer stopped us at a mid-road checkpoint. His words, “ police, passports” were familiar but we were not all too enthused by them. Our passports are tucked into secure locations, and to frequently remove them while exhausted is the kind of minor inconvenience that quickly turns into a pet peeve on a bike tour. This is partially because of the seemingly trivial nature of the passport checks. Ninety percent of the time, the person checking the passport will aimlessly rifle through the pages then hand it back. It is more about the act of transferring and acknowledging power than the contents of the passport. Thus, we tried plan B.
“Show him the photo!” I called out. Dan’s phone was in his hand and our camping photo was easily accessible.
“Police Army Passport!”
Out came our tried and true animated photo of a family in a tent that we use frequently when language prevents clear communication. We pointed at the photo, pointed at the road winding into the desert, and smiled.
“Please, we camp, we have tents.”
“Very good! Very good! OK. Goodbye!”
Hardy handshakes and smiles all around. No passports required. We took off into the void.

8:47pm – We spotted a huge, unlit building with a shade structure out front on the left side of the road. We pulled in an set up our sleeping arrangements under the canopy of mud and thatch. We chugged water, took a final look at the ocean of stars above, and tucked into our bags. The stars in the Sudanese Sahara are some of the best in the world. The milky way, a thick stream above us, branches into directions we had never seen before. It is a dizzying array.

12:31am – Wake up to pee, hazily stare in awe at the sky, pass out again.

3:30am – Molokai Slide blasts out with its cheerful encouragement that we take the day. Encouragement is needed from the cozy embrace of our bags. We all eye each other to make sure everyone is moving. Inertia is a killer for early morning starts. Our morning routine of packing up is so familiar that the pitch black did not slow the progress of packing up. Pillows are deflated first so you can’t lay your head back down. Then sleeping bags, then sleeping pads. Everything packed away, we scarfed down on cold falafel, bread, and water.

4:10am – Into the night. Every constellation we know in this hemisphere shone piercingly bright above us. The viscous flow of the milky way pointed us towards Khartoum, guiding our route and our imaginations. The stillness of the night in the Sahara is all encompassing. When we paused, the rhythm of our breath and hearts filled the void of sound. The stars sang along in vibrant silence. Every pedal we took towards Khartoum in the cool air reduced our soon-to-be blistering experience under the Sahara sun.

6:00am – Daniel and I stopped riding to take in the sunrise. The orange and pink glow which had enveloped the stars soon gave way to blue sky as the sun crested the mountains on the horizon. The sun, with despite its promise of astonishing strength, crept gently upwards. The race of time to ride in manageably cool temperatures had begun in earnest. The sun, the definition of consistency in this environment, chugged along in 1st gear. We dropped into third and started moving.

8:45am – I stopped for a bread, Nogilla (knockoff Nutella), and citrus break. By the time of writing this blog post we have explored a huge selection of off-brand Nutella. Nogilla is a middle-upper tier candidate. The current favorite is the 1kg tub of Bifarela.

10:50am – I am pushing hard for 100km before noon. The wind is up and the sun is showing its strength. My glasses protect my eyes from the blasts of sand that whip through the air. My beard and face, the latter coated in zinc, take on layer after layer of new sand protection. Rubbing my face is like coarse-grit sandpaper. The wind, mercifully, is often at our back. When the road turns, however, the blustery waves of heat assail our sides. Our wide bike frames and loaded panniers catch wind from every angle. Wild camels roam on either side of the road, presumably looking for some water. The camels provide a feeling of liveliness in what is otherwise endless shrubland. The ocean of bushes extends until it fades into the horizon of dust clouds that now wraps 360 degrees around us. I am riding hard towards my noon goal when I see Daniel on a scorched piece of shadeless earth, all of his panniers lying in the sand. I presume he has a flat tire or a mental breakdown. The reality is much worse.

“Its bad”
Dan’s seat post had snapped cleanly in half.

We are prepared with tools and spares for a wide variety of bike issues. This, however, was as unexpected as it was serious. Without a seat our bikes are unrideable. Less than two days to complete two hundred remaining kilometers of largely uninhabited Sahara riding became much more imposing. In a sun and sand blasted environment we sat cross legged and contemplated the issue. Attempt #1 to fix the seat post was with Gorilla-weld. We were less than optimistic, but it was the easiest thing to try. As we waited for the epoxy to settle our patch of desert became our de-facto lunch spot.

Beans, bread, lime, and oranges. Once the Gorilla-weld settled we reloaded Dan’s bike and he hopped on. We made it less than 100m before the repair failed. Dan, equipped with determination, and a raft guide’s knowledge of knots, set to work on the jerry-rig of jerry-rigs. Version 1.0 of what would eventually turn into many increasingly functional marginally comfortable “fixes”. It was agreed that I should ride on. Dan would give it his all to make it to our meet spot for the evening. If he was unable he would catch a ride on one of the many trucks that whizzed past. When I left dan he was knees to chest, a slow moving dot amidst the 100 degree air and ripping wind. I knew he would make it.

2:30pm – I am delirious. The road shifted its direction, and a strong side wind slowed my progress to a snails pace. Busses on the other side of the road fly by, propelling a stinging rush of sand every time they pass. The bus drivers misguidedly honk hello nearly every time they pass. The piercingly loud blare of the bus horns pairs remarkably well with the facial sand blast. Humour prevails in this scenario. Only 15kms remain in today’s ride. I am determined to push through.

3:00pm – I blow through a small town despite all of the tea houses with employees beckoning. Eight kilometers remain and nothing is stopping me now. Almost. I see Q’s bike leaned against the final building in the town. I pull off the road and push my bike through the sand to join him. Shade and friendship pull like a magnet. Quincy is tucked in the cool shelter, protected from the wind, with a book in hand. We share our Locos-handshake, share stories of high velocity sand attacks, and I settle into the shade. Q shows the cot where he had taken a joyous heat-delirium nap. Before I register anything else I am asleep on the cool concrete.

4:30pm I woke up feeling like animated lead. I rubbed my eyes and face and chuckled at the layer of sand that came with the motion.
“Good morning sunshine” Quincy is chomping down on an orange.
Q and I had a round of citrus, talked up our enthusiasm, and creakily pushed ourselves onto our feet. The bikes fought back with every inch we pushed them through deep sand to reach the road. Under the setting sun we took flight. Each pedal rejuvenated, the air became cool again, the colors radiated glowing and soft.

5:07pm – We reached our distance goal as the sun made its final descent to the horizon. A small mud and thatch shade structure beckoned to us.

There is enough room for three to sleep inside if they are as comfortable with each other as three people become on a trip like this. Hopefully we would end up with three people in that hut tonight. Still no sign of Dan. Quince and I kicked off our shoes, leaned against warm rocks, and plunged into sunset celebration mangos. We rejoiced at the sight of wispy clouds. Our time in the Sahara was drawing to and end. The further south we went, the more hints of moisture kissed the air. Our weary bodies melted into the stones as sunset transitioned to dusk, and the first bright stars appeared above us.

6:15pm – A shirtless man wearing an orange safety vest emerged on what appeared to be a clown bike from the height his knees reached with each pedal. DAN-O! The team celebrated. The seat jerry-rig was on V3.1, a marginal improvement from a passable torture method. Props to the man Dan.

7:30pm – Sleeping area set up three pads wide on the floor of this hut. We all chowed down on beans, Nogilla, and bread.

8:45am – Exhausted and sandy we hit the (Luci) lights and tumbled into sleep.

3:15am – I woke to a very uncomfortable stomach and set of bodily needs. I hustled out of my bag and into the desert. The astonishing stars provided a contrasting backdrop to some extremely unfortunate gastrointestinal activity.

4:15am – Repeat 3:15am.

5am – Alarms go off. Pack up the bags, repeat the early AM activities. Seven bouts of that nature before 7am is yet to be listed as a recommended way to start a one-hundred mile bike ride in the desert. Less weight in the system I suppose. Water and ciprofloxacin to the rescue.

7:00am – Slow start today. After citrus, bread, Nogilla, and a few more bathroom breaks I am on my way into the low-hanging sun. Good luck to Dan.

2:00pm – Peak heat. 115km down. A ripping sidewind makes a 10km stretch a true battle. I know the road bends at the end of the 10km and the wined will be favorable after, so this is a battle to be won in good fashion.

2:25:pm – I find Q under the partial shade of a thorn bush and I join for a lunch/nap break.

3:30pm – DAN-O! We have 40km to Khartoum and we are determined to make it before dark.

6:30pm – Having completed nearly two century rides through the desert in varying states of physical and bicycle disrepair, we found ourselves in a small outskirt town of the Capitol. We guzzled chalice after chalice of fresh juice and stuffed ourselves on stew and potatoes. We are yet to find a chef or waiter who is not amused or disturbed by the quantity of food that we order.

8:30pm – After befriending some police and showing our all important photo, we are allowed to sleep behind a truck stop. We are exhausted to the core but we agree to wake up early. It is critical that we get our bike issues resolved tomorrow and tracking down the right mechanic might be a process. Aside from Daniel’s missing seat post, my front break had been fully dysfunctional due to a missing piece since Egypt. Neither of these problems would fly in Ethiopia’s mountains.

7:15am – As we packed up our tents in our trash ridden plot of dirt that we called home, the first three Sudanese that we had saw wearing bicycle race attires rolled by the truck stop.
“WAIIITTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

7:20am – We were now friends with three of the four members of the Sudanese National Cycling Team. They were training for an international cup in Eritrea three days later.

3:00pm – We say goodbye to our new friends after a day a full day of riding, hanging out, and bike repair. Our bikes were fixed beyond what we could have hoped.

8:00pm – Three rounds of ice cream. It’s time for a rest day.

Nkadoru Murto (Cat and Mouse)

In many ways, climbing a hill on a heavy bicycle is a game of cat and mouse. A cycle tourist will chase that feeling up any road he encounters. Whether or not the top is within sight, it is continuous endeavor, focused on the the top of the ridge. Sometimes this game of being in the lowest gear possible lasts a few kilometers, sometimes a few hours.

Upon completion of this arduous incline, one might enjoy the delicious moment of a Summit Apple

and continue gleefully down the other side!

The delicious moment of the top is immediately released, and the cat and mouse game begins again upon the next ridge.

100 miles North of the equator, the road bent uphill a few hundred meters around a mountain known by the local Samburu tribe as Nkadoru Murto. The phrase means literally ‘animal peering out of grass’. It is commonly known that the rock formations on top of this hill look perfectly like a giant cat chasing a mouse.

This geology is more awe-inspiring than our other big-cat friend the Sphinx in that the natural geologic features of this Great Rift Valley produced this by chance. A spectacle for all passerby to see and admire the natural power of the last 3 million years.

When we share this and other towering landscape features with the Samburu for hundreds of generations, the roadside view is that much more impressive.

Seeing the giant cat and this mouse rock in the middle of riding uphill really reminded me of the joys of this game. Like the idiom points out, it’s not the end that I’m after, it’s following the means. It’s riding up or down this road in a continual hunt. And what a lovely ride every inch really is!

Bicycle Bond

Cars don’t crowd the roads we’ve been riding across Africa. With one lane of pavement bending through the land’s terrain, the sound of an engine is as likely as the hum of bicycle tires passing by.

Even though we enter these communities as clear outsiders, the bicycle becomes a connection point. Recognizing the physical exertion required, they relate to these strange foreign humans. Often people shockingly say, “very strong” when we tell them we rode 60 kilometers over the hill from the next town over. I don’t know what they’d think if they knew we came 3,000 kilometers across half the continent.

In nearly every place we stay, other cyclists can be found. Even small children’s bikes hang outside stores. Its the common form of transportation, and the only means some people have in their life.

We met the Sudanese cycling team riding through Khartoum. They used bicycle riding to travel across Africa as well. They compete in races not just in Sudan, but Rwanda, Eritrea and Egypt as well. We shared photos of our different travels, united by the love of propelling ourselves across the land!

In Ethiopia especially, people take pride in their bicycles and decorate them to the highest potential. Flowers taped on to the handlebars, fabric wrapping their frames and spray-painted fenders are commonplace.

Often as we pass through, the locals will ride a few kilometers through their hometowns, pointing out the oh so familiar road-side spectacles. One time, a child had proudly added a plastic bottle to his rim, so every time he rode, the chi-chug of the bottle hitting the ground made the sound of a horse galloping.

There was a steep hill climb out of a town called Debre Markos, and I was lucky enough to have the motivation of a local farmer returning home in his bicycle to motivate me up the incline.

Sometimes it’s the familiar feeling of pushing pedals in a very low gear and zig-zagging up the road that transcends the English-Amharic language barrier and produces friendships immediately.

Africa in particular is a good place for bicycles. Development is tricky in these rural, agrarian towns, and a bicycle can go a long way, both physically and in helping development.

We are honored to see how integrated the bicycle is into the local community nearly everywhere we are going. It thrills me to know, thanks to the support of everyone back home, we have raised over $10,000, or 70 bicycles through World Bicycle Relief!!

Pumping Tires

One of the most common questions that I get asked is: “How many flat tires have you had!?!?”

To which the obvious answer always follows: “Too many to count!”

But the truth is, there is a lot more to repairing a flat tire than simply patching a tube. Perhaps there are better ways to ask a cyclist about flat tires that would engage a more interesting response.

“Where was your most hectic flat tire?”

To which I would respond… “In the middle of an open street market in Cairo, about a kilometer away from the Pyramids of Giza, while trying to buy figs with about 200 honking cars and thousands of people funneling through a narrow street, getting bumped by people from every direction whilst running off of two hours of sleep. As I pulled off to the nearest alleyway to repair my puncture, I was approached by the generous Nasser who took us in to his home for our first home-cooked Egyptian meal, shared endless cups of tea and taught us about life in his country.”

“Where was your most frustrating flat tire?”

Without hesitation… “After waking up at 3AM in the middle of the street surrounded by bright lights and tailed by a police van, I embarked on a 300 kilometer self-supported crossing of the Sahara Desert. By 10AM I had completed 105 kilometers and the heat was rapidly increasing so I found some shade under an abandoned cement structure to rest under.

Two hours later, I ate my delicious pomegranate, hydrated, and mentally prepared to take on another section of dry desert. Right when I felt like I was in the zone and ready to ride, I began to roll my tires into the blazing sunlight. That was when I heard every cyclist’s least favorite sound… Psssssssssssssssssssssssssssss… Air escaping from my tires as fast as I had intended to be flying down the desert highway only moments before. A rushed patch job did me no good, and 60 kilometers later just as the sun was setting over the endless horizon I heard the oh-so-familiar and oh-so-dreaded sound… Psssssssssssssssssssssssssss… That was before Habib emerged from the only solid structure within miles that happened to be at the site of my flat tire and welcomed us in to provide shelter for the night after our longest ride of the journey.”

“Tell me about the flat tire you were most excited to inflate.”

This one is a no-brainer… “In the small Sudanese town of Abri along the banks of the Nile River I found myself pumping a flat tire on a bicycle that was not mine, and it is only fitting to set the scene prior to arriving to this brilliant moment. After my third consecutive night camping in the wild open Nubian Sahara Desert in Sudan, I was feeling rejuvenated and ready conquer the roads.

50 kilometers passed along enormous plateaus, regal volcanic mountains, and brutally scorched earth before turning the bend to see a never ending valley of dense greenery and palm trees walled on both sides by endless desert. The Nile River demands appreciation.

I pulled off the main road to enter Abri, a sand-dusted town consisting of modest and simple single-story stone structures and dirt roads. In search of anything cold, liquid, or sugary I rolled down the rocky road exuberantly responding to the countless smiles, ‘salamo alaykum’s, ‘hello mister’s, and barefoot children in school uniform running alongside me asking for handshakes as an old lady sitting on a rocking chair with her granddaughter on her lap motioned me to come to her shop where she had legendary iced hibiscus tea. As we sat outside drinking tea and sharing stories with the people of Abri, I suddenly heard squeals of laughter and joy. I turned and looked over my shoulder to see three boys between the ages of eight and twelve taking turns on a well-used bicycle. Naturally, I was stoked to see other two-wheelers enjoying their bicycle so I gave a thumbs up and yelled ‘agala!’ (the Arabic word for bicycle). A few minutes later the mini cyclists passed again and as I watched them roll by I noticed a significant wobble in the back end of the bike. Upon further inspection, I realized that they were sharing a bicycle with a severely deflated back tire, and I instantly realized I could provide the solution. They were intimidated as I approached them, but after a few goofy faces and smiles they began to laugh. I motioned them to follow me to Santana (my lovely bicycle) as I rummaged through my smelly gear to obtain my pump. By now they understood what I was doing and I could see their smiles starting to form in excitement. A few pumps of air and the back tire was in full-form. One child said ‘shokraan’, another said ‘thank you’, and the third said ‘mister’ and pointed to the dry rusted chain. I pulled out my chain lubricant, rotated the pedals as I added a few drops of oil, and handed them back their new and improved steed, fully inflated and greased up, and ready to fly. Words weren’t necessary for me to receive their thankfulness as I watched a cloud of dust form as one of the kids took off with the other two running behind yelling with excitement.”

Flat tires… They seem to create a trail of magical moments, always unexpected and each one with its own special twist.

11/11 Make A Wish

Imagine your dream is to go to America, to have the same opportunities I’ve been granted and given my whole life. This is Emmanuel’s reality. He prays every day that by the grace of God he might get the chance to go to America or Europe. He prays to have less harsh circumstances and to do something more with his life.

Emmanuel left Sierra Leone 5 years ago, his home in Freetown not a safe place during the civil war. He fled to Liberia, a neighbouring West African country, but did not find solace there. Emmanuel, joined by his friend Patrick, took of from their roots in West Africa with wide-eyed dreams on the Northern horizon. In Europe, they would hope to find a life away from poverty and war.

Across the Sahara desert, they were met with another harsh reality. Daesh, a militant terrorist group in Libya, enforced harsh sharia law upon their dreams. They forced the Christians to follow Islamic guidelines and identify with more traditional names. Emmanuel left Sierra Leone hopeful, with his faith in Christianity. Idris left Libya, practicing Islam as as the only escape to being killed. Emmanuel considers himself lucky, “by the grace of God,” or “masallah,” as he now has to say, to have survived this encounter.  His friend Patrick, now stuck with the name Solomon, is the only branch of his roots he has left.

They came to Sudan to seek asylum from this issue. But they found one harsh life replace another. With no embassy or consulate representing Sierra Leone in Sudan, Idris and Solomon are paperless, and live in the shell of another name, with constant fear of more punishment under sharia law. They spoke in hushed tones as not to be overheard, and spent a lot of time in their room as it was too risky to be out past dark, when there are a lot of police.

They were able to tell us that in the five months they were in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, they got by with work here and there. A full day of carpentry or laying tile would get them 300-400 Sudanese pounds, about 6-8 dollars, and they’d be lucky to have work. Being from a French-speaking country, they do not know much Arabic. Emmanuel and Patrick get strange glances from the surrounding people if they speak in their native tongue. To save face, Idirs and Solomon attend mosque gatherings. They can only pray to their own God in private, making being themselves very difficult.

Fro Emmanuel and Patrick, Christianity isn’t a philosophy. It’s a connection to their way of life, and all the people in their hometown, their family back in Freetown. Being deprived of what makes them who they are, Emmanuel and Patrick are trying hard to cross into Egypt. There they would have the chance to go to an embassy and be a part of a sharia-less, religiously tolerant culture. These are things I take for granted nearly every day.

When I met these two men in Dongola, Sudan, they were caught in the middle. 500 kilometers from the border, they don’t know the safety of continuing forward. Returning 500 kilometers south in Khartoum, with semi-consistent jobs, they could remain in their fake appearance.

Every day, Emmanuel and Patrick pray. They pray for their families back home and the chance to make their lives their own.

I am lucky enough to come from, as Emmanuel says, “a different planet.” I more or less am a part of the stars he wishes upon daily.

I know I can’t grant them access to a country where they can maintain a stable livelihood they can call their own. but with $50 in their pockets now, I know they can go a lot further. I can use my 11-11 actions making their wish a more hopeful future.

Emmanuel repeatedly mentions the trial and tribulations of living in this war-torn countries. He says its frustrating watching the people that have everything they need fighting over what they don’t. He knows it doesn’t have to be this way. Emmanuel goes forth with the best of intentions and says, with a great deal of honor, “that’s all a man can do, just be his best self.”

Emmanuel and Patrick’s reality has definitely taught me a lesson in my own self-understanding, and I am grateful for the chance to have heard, and been a part of, their story. The plight of the refugee is an incomprehnsible experience. The issue lies not just in leaving the area where the conflict occurs, but battling the internal conflict of finding oneself without a true identity. In the wake of having everything ripped from your life. the woes of reassembling it run even deeper.

It takes a lot of strength for Emmanuel to keep on existing with the entire surrounding Islamic world forcing him to be Idris. Hoping that I would understand, Emmanuel would repeat his hometown’s phrase, “the good one’s the dead one.”

At first I thought it seemed like a logical cry for mercy, and that the one who has it good is the one who has escaped life’s harshness. Idris’s stories paint a picture of a tough worldly existence. But all the while telling these stories, their was one thing that remained — his faith.

Everything good Emmanuel received, and everything he prayed for, he belived could only happen by the grace of God. Everything he had, summing to a toaster-sized briefcase and an extra button-down shirt, was viewed as a gift from God. This worldview kept him tied to his roots, and received much strength trough faith.

All this made me think that he means a person can only be considered good upon final judgement of a person’s character, after death. All the actions on Earth are summed into a single comparison.

Emmanuel’s faith allows him to see his situation away from the anger toward the people who have wronged him. He does what he knows as himself and true. He won’t judge anyone else’s actions against them because Emmanuel knows that only in death can be determined as good or not. Until that point, Idris will continue to be

Imam

When we touched down at Cairo International at 12:06AM, we had not slept in over thirty hours. Russian airplane food, a blur of movies, and an absurd amount of excitement got us through our travel from LA to Egypt. We assembled our bikes in a corner of the airport into the wee hours of the morning. From the airport we rode with the rising sun, glowing orange and deceivingly gentle behind the morning haze. Hectic city riding through dusty, glass filled roads welcomed us to Cairo. Cars zipped past in every direction as we tried to balance navigating from our phones with not ending our trip as Egyptian road pancakes one hour into the adventure. Only forty kilometers separated us from the Pyramids of Giza and our place of rest. It was going to be a long forty kilometers. A wrong turn put us through a tunnel less than equipped for bicycles. We emerged back into the increasingly sun-smothered city to find that our next mapped turn did not exist as a road. We lifted our bikes over a partition of sand and walked them through a construction zone. Back on the road, and now hiding behind the shelter of a semi-truck, we used our lead blocking vehicle to make a shockingly unprotected left turn. As we peeled onto a relatively quiet street, our adrenaline waned, and the hunger of 24 hours of airplane food careened down on us in synch with the exhaustion of not truly sleeping in over thirty hours. Breakfast time. As if our stomachs and minds had aligned with the interworkings of the universe, the next sight we had was the fulfillment of our most base cravings. Imam stood beside his food cart, and waved us down with a broad smile on his face and warmth in his gestures. Imam stood proudly behind mountains of falafel, salad, french fries, eggplant, and pita bread. “Welcome to Egypt”. A small crowd was gathered around the cart when we arrived. Evidently, Imam was as popular for the people of Cairo as he was immediately popular with us bedraggled travelers. We had not yet obtained our current Arabic vocabulary, so when Imam asked in Arabic what we would like, we were left defenseless, yet also thoroughly self-assured. We wanted everything, and we conveyed that with sweeping hand gestures. Imam acknowledged our request with a beaming smile and got to work preparing the perfect breakfast. The anticipation and pleasure of being handed our food matched the intensity of our weariness. We devoured the first three rounds of pita stuffed with beans, falafel, salad, and fries barely after he had turned around. Imam’s daughter, perhaps six years old, kept a bemused eye on us as we fell voraciously onto our meal. After our first gorging, Imam swooped up his daughter, jumped into his car with her, and took her to school. He was back within five minutes and made another batch of food. He sent his assistant to get our first Egyptian tea from an alleyway vendor across the street. The tea was a nectar of life that morning and since then has manifested itself into an addiction (we had seven cups each on day 19). Satiated, and overwhelmed with gratitude we finished our meal and tea and approached Imam to pay. With a laugh and a firm shake of the head, Imam dismissed our offer for payment. This, he said, was a welcoming gift to Egypt. Rather than pay he wanted us to take photos with him, spread the good word about Egyptians, and thoroughly enjoy our experience in his country. As we prepare to leave Egypt tomorrow, the feeling of welcomness that Imam bestowed on us has not subsided. His kindness shattered our desperate feelings at the time, and shifted our perception of the city on our first morning. Wherever you are today, take a moment, and find a way to share some of your warmth with someone like Imam did with us on that beautiful day.

When we did arrive to the pyramids, we stared at them for an hour and a half in a drunk-on-life stupor and then proceeded to sleep for thirteen and a half very happy hours.

1,000 Kilometers Ridden!

The great joy of simple pleasures while on a cycle tour is starting to take form again. As I sat on the Southern edge of the Sahara desert, I ate a pomegranate and looked back at the kilometers we had just endured. Under the shade of the roadside cabana, I could hear the call to prayer at the village mosque of Abu Simbel. As I methodically nibbled the seeds from my glowing red fruit, I felt as though this food was my religion. Nothing could make it more of a spiritual experience than the trials and tribulations of 2 weeks on a 200 pound bicycle. The satisfaction of ones most basic needs, food and a place to sleep, are enough to send me into bouts of joy. The appreciation for these little things fills my being with life and admiration. I don’t know how to explain the feeling, for at some points it’s a catch-22. The ultimate goal isn’t to reach a destination or kilometer, it is to be mid-ride, with nothing but an open road in front of you. It’s to be flying at the most efficient way a human can go under his or her own power.
The feeling doesn’t come from the places I ride to, but a release of something inside myself. A muse of sorts that plays a tune to the roars toon of the bicycle pedals. To keep it alive, I ride over each and every hill in the horizon.
When this ephemeral muse runs its course for the day, it leaves me feeling whole, proud and affirmed. Inundated with life, everything more is purely a blessing, whether it’s a cup of tea, submersion in water, fresh meal, or resting my head safely and securely. Thanks to the 1,000 kilometers that brought me this feeling and the many more with which to chase it!