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Fresh Air and Comfortable Campsites

 

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These cattle remind me of home.

I’m sitting in a TV/reading room at a campground in Methvan, New Zealand. On the wall to my left is a large wood-burning stove and the door to a kitchen. On the opposite wall is a large, old plasma television with DVD player and X-box. To the left of the TV are several large book cases with rows of well-read books and stacks magazines with torn and ragged spines. Worn recliners and sofas form a U shape in front of the television. Near the back of the room where I’m typing are several large tables and long benches. I could be at any of a large number of ski lodges where we’ve passed great evenings after a fun day on the slopes. In other words, I’m content and comfortable.

The only other person in the room is a 19 year old backpacker from Germany. He recently graduated from high school and set off to hike from the most northern to the most souther tip of New Zealand. He’s a wonderful conversationalists and, I suspect, craving conversation as much as me.

Eric, after giving up on stupid television shows, just headed out to our tent to read and sleep.

I, on the other hand, am energized from the excitement of being in NZ. I’m also a bit nostalgic for home. From the wide-open spaces, the pine scented forests, the just-sheered sheep, the grazing beef cattle, the piles of hay stacked and ready for winter, the cool weather crops of lettuce and cabbage filling squares of farmland like patches of a quilt, and the mountain tops dotted with pines and rock remind me of Western Colorado, Eastern Washington, and parts of California without the thousands of miles of distance in between.

Both Eric and I have commented that going from the heat, noise, stress of navigating SE Asia to the cold, quiet, and solitude of long stretches of highway in New Zealand is taking some getting used to. The first day, after I got over the beauty of the first couple of farms, I felt a little bored. The long straight roads seemed harder mentally than physically. Not having to be so focused on the road and traffic as we were 100% of the time in SE Asia allowed my brain drift to autopilot on one hand and then antsy to get to our destination on the other.

One thing that is really surprising me is how much we’re enjoying camping. Eric has always liked to camp but I’d really just gone along because the kids were content and occupied at campgrounds giving me precious time to read when they were younger.

But, twenty years later, I, too, am happy with this camping set up. The equipment seems more comfortable and warmer than I remember 20 years ago. And, having a kitchen and lounge area, like many of the New Zealand campgrounds do, makes camping almost a better option than a hotel for me because there is space to move around, people to chat with, and the option to make food that we like.

Of course, all this happiness may be influenced by the fall nice weather, flat campsite, and easy access to a local pub for beer and dinner. We’ll see how I feel if we have prolonged rain, wind, and/or snow.

Cleaning Our Bicycles for New Zealand

Eco-cleaning is like spring cleaning.

Degreaser and soap working their magic.
Degreaser and soap working their magic.

Here we are in this beautiful Bali, paradise some might say, and we’ve spent most of the time so far cleaning. As a matter of fact, I felt like I was back in my childhood home polishing silver or washing windows on the first beautiful day of spring and longing to go outside.

Here’s the deal. We are traveling to New Zealand with a layover in Australia and we’ve heard that passing through immigration can be tricky for those with soil encrusted shoes or clothes. As a matter of fact, we’ve been told that some people wearing shoes crusted with trekking mud and soil have had their shoes “cleaned” at the airport for the tune of $40/pair.

In order to save the embarrassment and fees associated with dirty shoes, panniers, and bicycles, we’ve spent most of the past 2 days cleaning the mud, grime, and asphalt off our supplies.

High pressure hose to wash off the grime.
High pressure hose to wash off the grime.

First we stopped by a shop for washing motorcycles. After some pantomime he understood that we wanted our bikes washed. Like a pro, he rolled them onto a motorcycle lift, flipped our bikes over, sprayed them with degreaser, used a high presser hose to take off most the grime, and then wiped everything dry including each spoke. His treatment was a good first step.

Then, back at the hotel we used the free hotel toothbrushes that Eric has been collecting and cut up another old t-shirts into rags to do the fine scrubbing. Getting off the dry tar spots was the trickiest.

Clean panniers drying in the hot sun.
Clean panniers drying in the hot sun.

The next step was to wash off our panniers and shoes. A few tablespoons of laundry detergent in a liter bottle of water with the top cut off to make a bucket was our “cleaner.” More brushing with a toothbrush and scrubbing with wet rags took off everything except the large piece of gum stuck on the bottom of one bag.

Another reason I like peanut butter.
Another reason I like peanut butter.
They look clean but smell is a different story.
They look clean but smell is a different story.

I was afraid to use solvent on the chewing gum because I thought it could damage my waterproof bag. But then I remembered the old peanut butter trick to remove gum from hair. Voila! Problem solved. Actually, I took care of another problem, the extra jar of peanut butter that was going to be tossed before flight because of weight.

After the bikes were cleaned, we took a taxi to a bicycle shop to pick up two bicycle boxes and to Carrefour for two boxes for our panniers.

By now it was 3:30 pm. We’d been at this “spring cleaning” since 9:00 am. The plan was to spend one final hour packing the boxes and be done leaving us time to be tourists on motorbikes that we were planning to rent.

Found the slow leak in the tube but never found the cause in the tire...
Found the slow leak in the tube but never found the cause in the tire…

But, because the bicycles were clean, it was a good time to find the slow leak in Eric’s back tire and replace a spoke on my back tire. These minor repairs led to more repairs and troubles which then meant we finally sealed the bicycle boxes at 7:00 pm – a good 10-hour day.

So, just in case you think we play all the time, today was “spring cleaning” day. And one task led to another and another. We have the good feeling of a “clean house” that we hope meets the Australia/NZ customs requirements but we haven’t seen any local sites.

Five Months Cycle Touring in SE Asia

A reflection of what we’ve learned and places we’ve loved.

“Can you believe we’re in Bali? Can you believe what we’ve done?” Eric stated more as an exclamation than a question last night popping open a can of Bintang beer.

We were sitting in our current lodging, a small studio apartment complete with our first kitchen in almost five months. We’ve cycled almost 6500 kilometers. For both of us, reaching Bali is both an end to a journey that, frankly, we were not sure we would actually complete or enjoy, and a beginning to the next stage of our travels, New Zealand.

The calm and peacefulness of Bali gives us the time to synthesize the frenzy, fear, and fun of the past four countries and reflect on that experience.

Here is a summary of what we learned and loved in each country.

Malaysia

View from a temple in Penang, Malaysia
View from a temple in Penang, Malaysia

We learned “never trust the bicycle Garmin”, contrary to one of my earliest, naive blog posts. We got the most lost “in our own backyard of Perak, Malaysia, where we throughout we knew the roads. But, we ignored our common sense and let Garmin lead. I know understand Garmin is a computer programmed to direct us to the smallest roads, ox-cart paths, and trails used by Neanderthals 10,000 years ago. Therefore, it’s not conducive to logical route planning.

I loved our tour guide Rickey Lee showing us hidden gems in Penang like riding the vehicular up Penang Hill and eating dim sum with his family before heading north from Malaysia.

Eric loved the Red Garden hawker stall in Penang for dinner.

Thailand

This cave is found on the southeastern coastal road of Thailand. The views are great and the road is relatively flat.
This cave is found on the southeastern coastal road of Thailand. The views are great and the road is relatively flat.

We learned to check elevations and grades of hill climbs before taking local cyclists’ advice about route planning. When we hear the words, “It’s looks like a great ride but I’ve never actually done it on a touring bike with 50 lbs of gear” we’d better do our research. Two people pushing one bicycle up steep hills in the hot sun miles from water is not my idea of fun.

I loved living like a local for four days in Chaing Mai with a warm showers host and eating a local hangouts, taking a leisurely Sunday ride with a group, and meet locals. I also loved putting our our bicycles on a river boat down the Mekong River.

Eric loved riding the south eastern coastal route because it was fairly flat and lodging was easy to find. Both the smooth ride and access to lodging took of that stress while he learned to cope with the heat and humidity. He also liked learning about WWII and the construction of the Burmese Railroad at Hell’s Pass.

Laos

Kids everywhere stopped to say saw bai dee.
Kids everywhere stopped to say saw bai dee.

We learned the “150 meter elevation climb and take a rest” idea for breaking up long hill climbs from fellow cycle tourists Thorsten and Sabine. This concept has helped us successfully tackle many large hill climbs since then. It also introduced early the concept of smaller goals to break the day up into manageable parts and gave us a formula for thinking about how long a ride might take.

I loved the scenery of the mountain pass between Luang Prebang and Vang Vieng where the village children living along the highway would run alongside waving and and shouting “saw bai dee” (hello) everywhere we rode. I also loved the companionship of two other cycle touring couples: Sabine and Thorsten, and Lauren and Matthew.

Eric loved the food in Luang Prebang, a fusion of French and Laos food. We can remember both meals in town because the settings were elegant and the food was prepared and served as well as anything we’d had in Paris. This was a strong contrast to the primitiveness we’d just encountered for several weeks prior.

Vietnam

Both the coastline and mountains are beautiful in Vietnam.
Both the coastline and mountains are beautiful in Vietnam.

We learned that Vietnam is a beautiful, cooler (less hot), friendly, easy-to-cycle country and probably one of our favorite countries and could easily return. We saw how welcoming, hard-working and productive a country can be.

I loved, even though it was hard, the 15 hour, 130 km ride between Nha Trang and Dalat with fellow cyclist Manfred. It was one of the most physically and mentally taxing rides I’ve ever done but the feeling of accomplishment, the amazing scenery, and the reward of the delightful city of Dalat at the end made it worthwhile.

Eric loved the easy start of our journey in Vinh with the bell hop at our first hotel taking his afternoon off to show us the city. We were both in awe of the beautiful surrounding 50 kilometers green rice paddies, clean villages, and lovely churches and temples.

Indonesia

View of Mt. Bromo at sunrise.
View of Mt. Bromo at sunrise.

We learned about and witnessed the negative consequences of corruption at the lowest levels of society. Payoffs to local “police officers” have been blatant and, from what we can see, damages incentive, development, and progress making cycling very difficult. We also learned to heed other people’s advice when they say the traffic is bad.

I loved everything about Mt. Bromo: the 4WD up the mountain, the hike to the crater, and the 40 km bicycle ride downhill. I also loved visiting the hidden temples and sights around Yogyakarta with a local Warmshowers cyclist, Anto.

Eric loved Mt. Bromo and thoroughly enjoyed the 4WD rice.

Bali

Garmin found this little gem of a peaceful bungalow down a rocky, dirt path.
Garmin found this little gem of a peaceful bungalow down a rocky, dirt path.

We learned that the “find lodging” feature on the Garmin 810 works pretty darn well. This is one place where we started the morning in Java without a real plan and, somehow, ending up in Bali in the late afternoon in a rainstorm. We had a back-up plan but using the Garmin saved my cell phone from rain damage and saved time because we didn’t have to stop and hope for 3G. I’m embarrassed to admit, however, that I’m a slow learner because a fellow cyclist, Dell, had suggested I try the “find lodging” feature over 6 weeks ago.

I love everything so far: the calm and peacefulness, the road conditions, the people, the hellos from the children, the long braids of the school girls (reminds me of a much younger me.)

Eric loves the easy cycling roads. I also think he loves our lodging – an apartment with a kitchen, table, comfortable bed, nice bathroom, a hose for bicycle maintenance, and space to cull through his bags to shed some weight before New Zealand.

The two themes that are common in most of our favorites are the people and the scenery. We have nothing but gratitude for the wonderful people we’ve met so far. And we have nothing but awe for the amazing scenery.

Oh, and one of the nicest parts of this whole experience is that Eric said his very favorite is just being with together with me. Together we have learned that we can enjoy retirement on a bicycle.

Doing the Small Things

“You don’t have to be rich with money to do goodness.” Ankuntano Widyantono

Anto sitting on top of a temple that legends say is on top of a pile of gold.
Anto sitting on top of a temple that legends say is rests on top of a pile of gold.

How one guy’s love of cycling is making a difference in his country.

Eric and I has the pleasure of cycling with Akuntanu Widyantono, or Anto as he likes to be called, a twenty-somthing cyclist/explorer/writer/blogger in Jogyakarta. The more I got to know him, the more impressed I became with the simple things he is doing to promote cycling and camping in his country. He calls himself “just a normal guy” but his simple approach to cycling and writing about his experiences are having a big impact on the younger generation.

We met Anto through Warmshowers, a group for cycling enthusiasts to share lodging and a love for a common sport. Although we did not stay with Anto, we had the pleasure of local expertise to tour some local sights: an old bridge that was a relic of the Dutch colonization, an obscure Hindu temple, another temple, and some caves built by the Japanese to hide munitions during WWII.

Anto explaining about the bridge build by the Dutch. The salt water stream below is a mystery that flows to the sea.
Anto explaining about the bridge build by the Dutch. The salt water stream below is a mystery that flows to the sea.

The sites are very interesting and off the radar screen of the regular tourist paths. But even more interesting to me is how Anto finds these places and what he does once he find them.

Several times a week Anto starts off on his bicycle with no particular destination in mind. He just rides and takes the paths not well traveled. Often he gets lost and carries an old-fashioned compass, in case GPS signals are not working, and makes his way somewhere. More often than not, he stumbles across waterfalls, mud bridges, hidden caves, beautiful lookouts at the top of hills, or old temples covered with trash or graffiti. Then he wanders into the nearest village, finds an older person in the village and asks for the history or folklore about the place. For destinations farther away from home, he might also ask for permission to camp.

An example of signage built after Anto wrote the government about the Hinu temple in disrepair.
An example of signage built after Anto wrote the government about the Hinu temple in disrepair.
A hindu temple of fertility.
A hindu temple of fertility.

When he gets home, he write details about that day’s ride including the history of the place and how to find it. He has an active blog that gets over 4500 visits per month. And, from what we witnessed, people are using his suggestions about local attractions to plan their free time.

Caves built during the Japanese occupation to house munitions. The signs are new.
Caves built during the Japanese occupation to house munitions. The signs are new.

What really sets him apart from other bloggers is that he takes some of his “finds” to the government to help promote tourism by the local residents. For example, recently he round a hidden Hindi temple that was filled with trash and being used by local teenagers at the “hangout and party” place. After he learned the history of the temple from some local villagers, he wrote to the government and asked them if they want to let their national treasures be destroyed and lost to future generations.

These school children rode their bicycles to the temple with their teachers.
These school children rode their bicycles to the temple with their teachers.

Within a week, the temple was “found” and cleaned up. The relics were labeled and catalogued. Signs were placed on the nearby roads to direct people to the temple. Signs were placed at the site explaining the meaning of the carvings. Today there was a school group of about 30 students who had ridden their bicycles with their teachers to the temple for a small field trip. They were enjoying the ride and the different location of the “classroom.”

The bridge that Anto rediscovered and wrote about in his blog has become so popular that a small parking lot has been built. Many locals come to this bridge for wedding photographs and to enjoy the salt water flowing over the lava formations below.

The temple mound at the top of a small mountain was another discovery. Today there were many groups enjoying the 360 degree view and taking lovely photos. There were mountain bikers using the path for a challenging training loop. The villagers below were enjoying the increased traffic to the ancient temple and had opened up small food and beverage stalls and a way to earn some money.

Anto would like to see more people ride bicycles to enjoy the local scenery. But he is concerned about the obstacles. There is a anti-bicycle culture that we’ve seen in many SE Asia countries – the perception that bicycle riding is for the poor. Status is achieved by buying motorcycles and cars. The motorcycle manufacturers have made it very easy for Indonesians to buy new motorcycles with very little cash and it’s common to see families where each child has his or her own motorcycle.

He’s had people comment that their bicycle isn’t good enough for these short journeys to the countryside. He tries to convince them to ride whatever bicycle they have laying around. He even has a small repair shop in his home to help get people back on their “working” bicycles.

Aside from Anto’s encouraging cycling and camping, he’s educating about pollution – no small feat in a country where throwing rubbish anywhere and everywhere is common practice and old engines from motorcycles, cars, trucks, and buses fill the air with black smoke all the time.

Anto says, “Don’t be affraid with what other people thinking about you (sic), your life is not just to impress others but doing your life in a positive way (and of course you like it) sooner people(s) from everywhere will appreciate and get inspired because of you .”

As I’ve mentioned before, Indonesia has been a difficult country for us to visit because of the infrastructure, pollution, and hesitation on the part of the locals to interact or smile at strangers. But meeting and cycling with Anto, a “regular guy” with a vision for the future of his country, has made our pedals spin easier and our smiles much bigger.