Monthly Archives: April 2018

Bikepacking Portugal (Part Two)

Our fourth day of cycling started in Nazaré, a delightful resort town with scenic cliffs and huge breaking waves. In the late morning we rode to the old Nazaré Lighthouse (Farol da Nazaré) where visitors can view the cliffs and both Praia do Norte and Praia da Nazaré. The weather was inspiring and the sky clear, so we sat and observed the beaches and the waves while eating breakfast. This part of  Nazaré has some historical buildings, a square with vendors and people wearing traditional clothing from the area and just felt like it had a lot going on. We decided to stay the whole morning, walking our bikes through the little streets and stopping for coffee.

While we were leaving the city, I realized a pattern emerging; navigating though large towns and cities presented the biggest challenges so far. These places are crowded, complicated and safety becomes a concern. Turning left is really hard and we have to take care to both make it through traffic lights and keep to our distance from the cyclists biggest frenemy, buses. In cities it’s not easy to just stop and check for directions and sometimes the road we had planned to follow looked too chaotic for cycling and we had to change course. It reminded me a bit of hitchhiking, where it’s almost better to avoid a city and take a ride around it then taking your chances of smoothly going in and exiting. During our morning break we decided to make an effort to go around cities unless there was a special reason for visiting.

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Protecting myself from the sun, salty wind and chilly temps.

Out of Nazaré we followed a small road coast-side of Hwy 242. In the afternoon the wind really picked up and a sprinkling of showers fell- the first of the trip – although gentle enough to still enjoy the winding path along the Silver Coast. I actually enjoyed the rain to a degree. The rugged coast really seemed to come alive and command respect and attention. It’s so easy to think of a beach as a place for watching sunsets and digging toes into sand and not as the wild and dynamic place that it is.

Before reaching the Óbidos Lagoon we headed inland and spotted the famous castle from almost 10 kilometers away. I found this really exciting and loved the classic medieval architecture; when I imagine a castle, something exactly like the shape the of the Óbidos Castle comes to mind. We rode up the curving road past the almost thousand year old complex and stopped at a cafe to enjoy the view and rest our legs. Thinking about all the history surrounding us was a really powerful experience. Not just the millennia of human activity but also the slow processes nature; seeing the rugged coast slowly shaped by wind and waves provokes you to really think about time.

That evening we found a campsite south Peniche and picnicked on fruit we bought from a roadside stand. Although we were in the mood for something more substantial, it was a Sunday and markets and many cafes were closed. It was the only night we really didn’t get a nice dinner but it was still fun and filling with all the fruits and the last of the bottle of port we picked up in Porto.

My favorite sights were the small beaches of Santa Cruz and São Lourenço with layered and colorful rock formations where the sea and land come together. Eventually the route wandered away from the coast and passed through orchards, vineyards and around castles, really completing the picture of this beautiful country.

A view from a nice resting point on the Silver Coast.

It only took me five days to get lost. Trying to follow a network of different trails and routes is exhausting. In an effort to save time on the way to Sintra, we turned onto highway N9 – not at all scenic but it allowed us to move quickly and not worry about navigation. I followed the road until I was able to see Castelo dos Mouros, the 9th century Moorish castle of Sintra looming high, appearing very detailed and imposing, and much closer than it actually was. Assuming I was very near Sintra, and with my travel partner far ahead of me I turned off of N9 and planned to follow whatever little roads seem to head towards to the castle (I usually have a great sense of direction). This approach actually took a few hours and instead of spending the day off the bike, trekking deep into the nature park, I arrived to Sintra at about 6 PM. pretty grumpy, tired and too late to check into almost any accommodation in the area. After some running around, I found The Blue House, a very cute and wonderful hostel. The owner was really cool about letting me keep my bike on the second floor patio and gave me some great ideas for dinner and wines to try while I recovered from the long day. My cycling partner ended up in a different place that night and I was able to meet other travelers and have time to myself and it was a really lovely evening. I hadn’t realized how tired and stressed I had become the preceding days. Cycle touring is very fun but having to deal with all the little things of planning your own cross country tour builds up a lot of stress. It was great to be shaken back into a nice mental space.

Sunny Sao Lourenço Beach.

Today, on day number six, I have a flat and easy ride from Sintra to Lisbon via Cascais and it will have a lot of snack (and also wine) stops. Aside from a few infrastructure and navigation issues, things are actually going really well. My bottom is finally getting used cycling (thank goodness). I’ve seen a few other bike travelers and a handful of what looks like long distance hikers. It’s encouraging to see these people and enjoy a chat with them; there is a magic in seeing other regular people doing challenging things too and makes me feel a bit more sane about just deciding to bike across a foreign country.

Thank you for reading!

Bikepacking Portugal (Part One)

Bom dia from Nazaré, 250 kilometers into a dream cycling journey along the Portuguese coast from Porto to Lagos.

My second visit to this beautiful country and my first time backpacking is off to a great start passing along the beautiful coast and through adorable villages, enjoying warm dinners and sunny coffee breaks. I’ve found Portugal is a wonderful and affordable place to explore on your own, especially on two wheels.

I’m touring on a racing bike borrowed from a friend, doctored to accommodate a rack purchased from Decathlon. The light frame and fit will help me maintain a steady pace along a patchwork of roads that loosely follow along the coast and in south, the Fishermens Trail, also know as the Rota Vicentina. The ride is meant to be simple with the freedom to dismount and take day hikes or explore on foot in villages or beaches. A tent, sleeping bag, pad, spare tubes, pump, odometer, power bank, lock, tarp and small supply of clothing are in tow. For ease of travel and to experience the local cuisine along my path, I decided against carrying cooking supplies; Portugal is a great place to find cheap, delicious meals and fresh produce and my route never strays too far from the beaten path. I am however, carrying a wine bottle opener and utensils.

A dinner of Francesinha and wine in Porto.

Planning the route was a challenge as there is no single cycling coastal route. While waiting for the bikes to arrive (shipped from Austria) my travel companion and I explored Lisbon by day and examined maps and organized our itinerary by night. The biggest issue with the planning was eliminating some dream stops from the trip – for me this included Coimbra and Sagres. There are simply too many historical and alluring sites in Portugal for one trip but once we acknowledged this, it was easy to agree to a rough path. The itinerary is loose enough to add days in places we loved, or to wait out bad weather and make small detours if something amazing or unexpected showed itself along the way. We decided to research multiple places to stay each night and pick the option that made the most sense on the go. Our route began in Porto and hits Nazaré, Obidos, Sintra, Parque Natural da Arrábida, Aljezur and Lagos. When cycling paths are available we will follow them but we are also using major roads in some stretches to save time. The journey also includes a train trip from Lisbon to Porto, our starting point, and two short ferry rides, one over the Tagus in Lisbon and the other from Setúbal to the Troia Peninsula. The route will cover about 700 kilometers in total over two weeks.

You could say things officially began in a north suburb of Lisbon where we assembled our bikes and then boarded a train to Porto. We found our tickets a few days in advance on the Rail Europe website. One way to tickets were about 30 USD and the bicycles were free to transport, however, we had to chose a seat on a train that still had room for the bikes. Before leaving we made a stop off at a suburban Decathelon to buy spare tubes, a mini pump, bike rack, sleeping pad and padded cycling bottoms. These items were cheaper than they would be at home and the quality was appropriate for our needs.

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The bike all packed up.

Porto is an interesting city to explore and has it’s own feel, much different than Lisbon. We found a cycling-friendly hostel not far from the train station and after securing our bikes inside we wandered around the Baixa neighborhood and riverfront. The beautiful weather and springtime air added the perfect touch to a lovely evening of rich food and lots of port. I almost wanted to delay the trip to spend more time in the city but I knew I was likely to become attached to every destination and would have to learn to move on – something I always find hard while traveling.

The following morning we crossed the Ponte Luis and took an immediate right onto the Av. Diogo Leite. A bike friendly riverfront road follows along the Douro until the Atlantic coast at the Douro Estuary Viewpoint. We then took off south along the coast on a well marked and maintained cycling path. Cafes and markets are everywhere on the first 100 kilometers and most communities have bike parking and a welcoming vibe to cyclists. It felt largely suburban and was a good opportunity to tweak the bikes and the packing system before we were far from civilization. If we were to have forgotten anything or needed a change it would have been easy to find a bike shop or hardware store.

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The first of a few unplanned wild camping nights. I would recommend spending a few bucks on international or Skype calls to confirm campgrounds are truly operational before showing up.

The first night of camping was a dream staying on sand near Reserva Natural das Dunas de São Jacinto, about 70 kilometers south of Porto. The sound of the sea and the soft sand was very comforting to me and I was really grateful such a wonderful place was our stopping place for the night. Although the day’s terrain was flat, navigating the continuous urban landscape was tiring; we were almost constantly checking our map app to ensure we were on the right course. We made so many errors and took “the long way” several times so that our odometers read 90 kilometers when we made camp. Navigation is a big frustration of going your own way but something we were mentally prepared for.

About 150 km south of Porto, the modern buildings and bright seaside settlements thin out before Nazaré and the landscape is dominated by forest. It was at this point we realized how unfamiliar we were with Portugal itself. We had seen a forested camping area on the map and decided it would make a nice place to camp that night, however, unknown to us it had been destroyed a year before in a devastating wildfire. The entire area around Marinha Grande was ashen and grey, it was honestly frightening to see. Although a few long sections followed an even cycle path, even the roads are damaged (as of 2018) – partially melted and with a rough riding experience similar to cobblestone. Fortunately, some patches are already starting to recover with wildflowers and shrubs in every color bursting through the soil and deer exploring the hollows.

After two nights of camping we wanted the third night spent indoors at Nazaré Hostel and take it easy. The city is absolutely gorgeous, known for it’s massive waves and extreme surf competitions. Nazaré is what I imagine when I think of Portugal – dramatic cliffs and oceanscape with a little town set along a hill dotted white washed houses and red roofs (thanks Sue and Brian for suggesting this pretty town).

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Nazare in the evening.

After three days what do I think of the route? We arrived in Portugal directly from a three month trip in Southeast Asia and managing our private belongings and working with what we already have dictated the way we packed. I have a 40L backpack strapped to the bike rack and am not using actual panniers. This works well most of the time and forces me to travel light but on uneven roads it jiggles loose. My travel companion is was able to get two of his own bikes shipped to us from his home for about 50 USD. The trade off with the huge savings is that the bike I’m using is a little too big and not meant for rough roads. It does seem to be working well for what we have done so far. A nightly ritual is chaining the high value bikes up with a padlock to keep them protected. Edit: at no point in the trip did anyone attempt to take the bikes. We felt the peace of mind was worth carrying around the lock and chain. Drivers seem attentive and we feel safe on the road,  however aggressive dogs have caused us problems. I was actually bitten in the leg south of Nazaré on a busy public road but had enough thick layers on to prevent puncture. Edit: To us, dogs ended up being the most threatening part of the trip, which was overall very safe.

If we enjoy our adventure on the Portuguese coast we will immediately follow up with a two week trip through southern Spain. I look forward to updating you!

Thanks for reading!

Hanoi, Vietnam

My ten-day* visit to Vietnam began in Hanoi. Upon arrival I noticed a completely different feel from anywhere I’d been before. Heading into the city at night from the airport, it was difficult to get a good view, however, it was quite easy to hear the noises of the metropolis. With roughly eight million people calling Hanoi home, the city is very much alive: talking, shouting, laughing, honking, screeching, music booming and roosters crowing. Even so, I enjoyed my short introduction to Vietnam; meeting other travelers was very easy and visiting alone worked perfectly. The city is full of exceptionally outgoing people and most days I was invited to a beer, dinner or coffee by a total stranger. *I loved my short visit so much that I soon returned for a road trip across the country – an experience I’ll write about soon.

Trying to piece together a vision of Hanoi before visiting was difficult. Easy-to-find information for prospective travelers is, unfortunately, repetitive and covers narrow ground; doing a circuit of war museums, gawking at the famous train street or grabbing bún chả where President Obama and Anthony Bourdain dined. I also found an appalling amount of “tip” sites exclusively directed at men focused on when and how to pick up drunk or drugged female backpackers or how to buy local women (tourists’ feelings of entitlement in Asia can be extreme and alarming)I filled information gaps with stories and pictures from small travel/personal blogs run by women, travelers living outside the U.S. and Australia, and Vietnamese people traveling their own country. Some of this was found on WordPress but many social media channels were used. After a bit of work I had a simple list of activities and places unique to Hanoi that would get me out and about and getting to see things for myself. In reality, it was challenging to actually follow the plan because of how social other travelers and local people turned out to be. Everyone wanted to chat, hang out, show me something or go exploring. I’m always a concerned while traveling alone that there may be times when I feel lonely or bored but I think it might have been impossible for that to happen in Hanoi.

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Rooftop view.

The first day I simply wandered the streets and alleys stopping when anything delicious came into view (or, as a coffee addict, the aroma of roasting beans hung in the air). Common Vietnamese dishes known to westerners – phở, chả cá, bánh mi, cốm and bún cha are easy to spot, as well as traditional, and all sorts of fusion and foreign eateries, including American fast food. During meal times groups of people just take over the sidewalk, and on occasion the street, with little plastic chairs and tables to sit outside for talking and eating (peoplewatching is top-notch in Hanoi). With so many people around it was fun to ask for recommendations for bars, coffee or snacks. One evening, after speaking with three different groups of people, the same corner was mentioned twice (a noodle stall served there) so I decided to find it. I ended up wandering the same few crowded and noisy blocks for about an hour before finding the place. While I had a big bowl of pho, I talked to the very friendly young lady running things. She laughed after I told her all the trouble that went into finding her place and informed me that Americans sometimes pronounce the Vietnamese word phở as they should for the word “đường phố, which means “street.” Apparently, when I thought I was asking for the nearby pho shop, I sounded like I was asking where the street was.

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Egg coffee and pho.

Getting around the city, even on foot, was an adventure in some of the busier neighborhoods. Nicer motorbikes and cars get parked on any empty patch of sidewalk available and people often converge on curbs and street side restaurants during meal times or just drink in hand, pushing walking traffic into the roadway. From the little alleys to main thoroughfares, everything turns into a gridlocked mess in the evening and traffic looked heavy most of the time. In the French Quarter the madness sometimes worked in my favor, allowing me to slowly walk into what looked like a parking lot and push through. When things weren’t jammed, I watched amazed at how effortlessly Vietnamese drivers just flow through the streets on scooters like a school of fish. They can avoid bicyclists, snail-paced walkers, buses, and opposite traffic even in nightmarish seven-way intersections; I don’t know how it’s possible. Although the tourist area is compact and very walkable, when it made sense to use wheels I found rides on the ride share app Grab – this way I didn’t have to haggle or negotiate a fare. (After Thailand, I never want to haggle again. Ever.) Buses were great for longer trips, though I was very dependent on my hosts to locate the correct pick up spot.

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The long history of the Vietnamese capital, and the almost constant attempts by outsiders to influence and control the country going back millennia, can be read through examining the architecture and layout; Taoist temples and other remnants from Chinese rule, French colonial buildings and related Haussamannization, the modernist-Soviet style monuments and squares, Vietnamese flags in every public place, pro-state propaganda with military imagery, run-of-the-mill modern office buildings, hip eateries and luxury apartment complexes are all mixed together. Going into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was interesting as well as visiting historically and politically significant places; seeing how the Vietnamese state defines itself verses the American-approved narrative of Vietnam’s history is illuminating and will be interpreted by each foreign visitor differently. It’s useful to seek out these different visual representations of some elements of modern Vietnamese life. However, the distinct atmosphere and many essential features of the culture will elude travelers that stick to museums and monuments; you will get a much more thorough feel for the city if you can ditch the tours and guides and get out into real life.

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Temple of Literature & National University, originally built as a university in 1070 CE and dedicated to Confucius and scholars. This temple is also  on the back of the 100,000 dong banknote.

Many aspects of life in Hanoi are very modern yet in many places the people face clear development issues. To a visitor on the street sanitation and infrastructure challenges are apparent. Hanoi air is usually of poor quality and it can really knock you on your ass if you are fortunate enough to have lived your life in a place with very clean air – I noticed travel forums and bloggers mentioned this frequently – be prepared, should you visit. Even though I was warned about public health problems and tried my best to take care of myself, after just three days I was struck with both pink eye and a respiratory infection. I will say, treating my conditions was easy with basic pharmacies all over the city, and exceptionally cheap while effective medications. Looking and sounding a bit ghoulish made it harder to make new friends but didn’t get in the way of enjoying the city – no grudge held!

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The fans!

On my final day in Hanoi, the Vietnamese men’s football team played in the Championship match for the AFC U-23 tournament. That morning the city erupted into a football frenzy with people driving slowly down the streets, blasting music, waving flags and wearing all kinds of red and yellow decorations, creating an infectious excitement. By afternoon televisions and radios had been rounded up and brought into any and all bars and cafes for public viewings of the match. Not wanting to miss out on watching, I ducked into a packed coffee house to watch the first half of the game among many families and children. During the half break I ran to a main street and found a bar with three huge screens outside and about 200 views jammed around little plastic tables covered with beer glasses and plates of food. Viewers even spread out into the road with a small clearing for delivery drivers, taxis, policemen and other people at work who wanted to pull over for a game update. Everyone was in a good mood and I was immediately offered a spot to sit with a group of strangers. My new friends didn’t hesitate to keep my beer glass full and filled me in on the team so much as language barriers would allow. As the game progressed the crowd erupted into different cheers and songs in several languages. Even though Vietnam would lose the match to Uzbekistan, it was some of the most fun I’ve had watching football and was yet another personal experience hinged on the friendliness and welcoming attitude Vietnamese people show towards visitors.

After the game I would catch an overnight bus to Cao Bằng, to the north, for a lovely few days exploring the rugged nature along the border with China.

Thanks for reading!

 

Thailand in Pictures

My first visit to Asia, originally a five week trip, turned into twelve and has kept me too busy to update this blog. Now that things are coming to a close I am able to finally share what I’ve been doing in Thailand and the other places that have been a part of my winter.

Thailand was a mixed bag for me. It was full of trash, smoggy cities and the sky was smoky from crop fires. I felt a constant stress from being badgered by peddlers or needing to salvage a situation after a business promised something it couldn’t deliver – not something you want on a holiday. On the positive side, I met many kind and amazing travelers and Thai people who I hope will remain friends into the future. I ate the variety of delicious food found throughout the country and every city felt generally safe to be a woman traveling alone. Like most visitors to Thailand, I really enjoyed the colorful nature and animals.

The following are images of Thailand that best highlight the journey – there is so much to recap and it was hard to pick just and a few memories.

Seeing wild elephants was an experience I will remember forever. I skipped seeing captive elephants, deciding it best to spend money on parks and infrastructure keeping these creatures living free. For about $30 I traveled to Kui Buri National Park and, with a guide in a truck, played “elephant hide and seek,” driving slowly in the park with binoculars glued to my face. We were very lucky to spot a few small groups including one with a baby (!) and a few solo elephants – one was an aggressive male that spotted us from 300 meters away and stamped around a bit to show who is in charge.

A friend and I had a great time biking around the forest and roughly 200 ruins that make up Sukhothai Park. The structures date from the 13th and 14th centuries CE. We enjoyed comparing the differences in architecture and decorative details of the well preserved pieces. Some corners of the park are free of people and make nice places to just relax.

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Erawan National Park hosts a river with a seven tiered waterfall. Each level has clear-blue pools available to visitors for wading or swimming. This was the first major nature area I visited and loved it! Reaching the top tier was challenging as the path became increasingly reclaimed by nature but it was the most fun I had on a hike.

I’m not the biggest fan of Bangkok but the complex of temples around and including Wat Arun is gorgeous and worth an afternoon boat ride across the river. I actually visited twice, once around noon to see architectural details in full sunlight and once again in the evening to enjoy sunset over the city.

A trip to see Huay Mae Sai Waterfall in Chaing Rai turned into a hike in the hills. Behind the waterfall a trail leads into the surrounding mountains with no end in sight. The path zigzags through pastures and forests. I wish I’d had enough time to see where it went.

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Prachuap Khiri Khan, a half day train ride from Bangkok, was my overall favorite location in Thailand. It’s the most beautiful and quiet seaside town. Adorable natural monkeys live aside the gorgeous Ao Manao Lime Bay (inside an air force base! Visitors allowed in for free). Everything is affordable and the few travelers I met were all outgoing and friendly. After a few days the place felt like home.

I’m not a pretentious eater and just dove right into whatever I saw. Street food, evening markets and small Thai cafes helped make my $25 a day budget possible. My favorites were fresh lime juice, coconut ice cream (pictured), pumpkin curries (pictured) and pork larb. Only once did I eat something too spicy and only twice did I get a Thai whiskey hangover.

Thailand has layers in every part of life, just like anywhere else. You can really do anything and build the travel experience that works for you while getting to know the culture. I’m glad I was able to see the huge metropolis that is Bangkok, tiny island villages, mountains, rivers, jungle, 1000-year-old temples, modern arts, take a swim in the ocean, go biking, do aerobics in Limphini Park with 300 other people, eat something totally new, binge on Oreos and other familiar treats, make new friends from every continent, visit English learning classrooms and meet students, and stay with a Thai family. Spending five weeks was enough time to get a feel for the country.

I’ve appreciated some of the challenges of the last few months. It’s an amazing privilege to go half way across the world and see how things work and people live in another place, even if it’s not always wonderful.

Goodbye, Thailand! Maybe I’ll be back again some day.

Thank you for reading!

Ruby