Losing Weight

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Losing Weight

Did I mention Corsica is hilly? It’s only 200-300km to the southern tip by bicycle, but our most likely route includes over 5000 meters of vertical climbing. Some small parts are rather steep at 20% or more as well. With our heavy bikes, it’s not going to be easy. But as Isabelle keeps reminding me, we’re not in a hurry, so it doesn’t matter. She's right, but I still prefer to make the task a little easier.

A village in the mountains near Montemaggiore.

During our rest day on the beach we did another 'lightening the load' operation. We went through all our panniers to find items we could throw away or send home.

It was easy to lose a few minor things here and there. But the three main problems are:

  1. My photography gear is heavy. Including the computer everything adds up to about 7-9kg.
  2. The sheer length of the trip. I could bike a week or two without shaving, using contact lenses, cooking warm meals, using a computer, having extra clothes and warm layers, etc. But living on the road for five years kind of forces me to take everything with me.
  3. Solo detours. We don’t plan to stay together 24/7, so we still need to carry two tents, stoves, toothpastes and various other items that we could narrow down otherwise.
"Yeah it's not bad," he said modestly.

On the very next day, we got a surprise opportunity to temporarily eliminate the last two problems. We stayed at the house of a nice old couple from Paris. They had retired from being engineers in the water and energy industries. Presumably quite successful ones, considering the size of, and amazing view from, their Corsican summer villa. We had a chance to leave most of our belongings in their garage, and take only what was necessary, for a little 50km loop inland: From Algajole to Calvi, Montemaggiore, Sant’Antonino, then via Pigna and Corbara back to Algajole for our stuff.

Most people could ride that in a day despite a few hills. We’re clearly not most people, so as we left we said we’d return to fetch our bags in about five days.

I left behind three heavy panniers and Isabelle did about the same. The trailer was nearly empty except for the dog. It seemed crazy what a massive pile of stuff we could suddenly live without. And the difference while cycling was huge. Climbs that previously would’ve required pushing the bike for an hour or two, were suddenly relatively easy to pedal up with only a few rest breaks.

The view at breakfast.

It felt great to lose all that weight. Like we were going on a mini-adventure from our bigger journey. I'm beginning to understand people with bikepacking and lightweight setups more now. I doubt I'll ever get to that point for as long as I'm a photographer, but some changes to my setup might be in order anyway.

This detour will probably teach us a lot about about what's necessary and what isn't. Afterwards we'll be going through everything once again, with new eyes.

The less possessions you have, the more freedom you gain.

Somewhere behind all the mountains is Sardinia.
Corsica, high and low.
 

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First Look at Corsica

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First Look at Corsica

Looking for the archives? Click to see all past posts.


In our hurry at the port of Marseille, we accidentally ended up on the wrong ferry to Corsica. We'd been told the east side is much easier to cycle, so wanted to land in Bastia and follow the coast south. But our boat actually went to L’Île Rousse on the northwest side. No worries - may as well go with the flow. It felt more exciting to end up somewhere unplanned.

Twelve hours and a poorly slept night later, we came ashore at sunrise. There was a rocky hill with a lighthouse next to the harbour, so we pushed up our bikes for breakfast tea and photos. As well as just marvelling at the fact that we finally made it here. The first view was impressive. The sea, the mountains, green nature between the villages… right away I knew I'd like this island.

To the left is the ferry we arrived on.
It looks like there's a guy standing in the photo admiring the sunrise... but he's actually looking at his smartwatch.

We hung out in L’Île Rousse for the day and then found a campsite on a hill with a sea view. There were wild pig droppings everywhere. In many places they had dug up the ground looking for roots to eat underneath. These weren’t the first signs of boars we’d seen so far, but from what I understand they are much more common in here than in the mainland. They are dangerous enough to maim or kill a human, so we’ll have to be careful and not leave our food bags lying around.

Day two confirmed this thought. We still felt like resting, so just cycled down the hill to the beach in the morning and camped again. (Camping isn’t legal in Corsica, but no one seems to mind it. At least in the winter when there’s less risk of forest fires.) Boars move around from dusk ’til dawn, and as soon as the sun went down, we heard squealing somewhere uncomfortably close to the tent. Later in the night when I walked a few meters away to use the toilet, I heard another squeal close by. I ran back and peed next to our camp instead, narrowly missing tent poles and stakes.

Two of us slept uneasily. The wind rustling branches and leaves sounded deceptively like creatures skulking around the campsite. The third member of the party, Kira the courageous guard dog, was of no use whatsoever. She snored all night, entirely oblivious to the dangers surrounding us.

Sunrise view of Calvi and its citadel.
There Will Be Sheep.

The best thing about being in Corsica is that for the first time on this trip, I feel like there’s no need to be hurrying anywhere. That probably sounds weird, but ever since last June I’ve had to keep moving to get away from Scandinavia before the freezing autumn arrives. Then in mainland Europe it’s been necessary to head south to escape the winter. Only now that we’re in the Mediterranean the seasons are no longer an issue (for now).

Not that cycling twentyish kilometres per day on average is stressful as such.. but I still feel a new level of freedom, to be able to just stay still and relax as much as I want. Especially when the surroundings are beautiful for photography.

This is what the trip is all about, and why I chose to have years to do it.

"Wake up Tomi, there's a sunrise."
 

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No Roads Lead to Marseille

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No Roads Lead to Marseille

Having reached the Mediterranean Sea, our plan was to take a ferry from Marseille to the island of Corsica. Storm Eleanor had already cancelled some ferry crossings, but weather on the mainland seemed to be fine for the next two days. After that the forecast warned about horrible headwinds and crazy amounts of rain for three days. We decided to get to Corsica to avoid getting stranded in the downpour. With two days, tail wind, and 100km to Marseille, it sounded easy enough.

We left the Camargue along a gravel road in the sea dike. The 11m/s wind pushing our backs was helpful, but also meant that there was no way to turn back if there were any problems. I called the tourism office to make sure the path was cyclable and there’d be no issues with flooding or tides. “The Mediterranean Sea doesn’t have tides, monsieur.” Even over the phone I heard eyes being rolled.

This looks almost as fun as cycling.

We made decent headway despite the path being blocked by occasional sand dunes. Until the trouble began in the afternoon. In the first village the grocery store was closed for siesta, forcing us to wait. Then what Google Maps said was a bridge turned out to be a ferry, which slowed us down again. Then a bicycle path became another bumpy gravel road. We stopped to eat. At least the sunset was so vibrant the colours barely seemed realistic.

Would you like a sunset with your tea and sandwiches?

Under the darkening sky, the gravel road quickly turned so bad that we had to push our bikes. I was getting a headache. The shaky road and the unnerving noise of a long row of wind turbines right next to us wasn’t making me feel any better. After an hour of struggling we were back on asphalt, only to discover that the road to Marseille was blocked due to construction. By then I felt too sick to go any further, so we camped right there behind some trees. Marseille was still 60km away.

Wind turbines are best enjoyed from afar.

The following day was the most challenging I’ve had in a long while of touring. Surrounded by an industrial hell, it wasn’t easy to find an area we were allowed in. 2km away from the blocked road we found a detour, but it was a difficult gravel road. Only a couple hundred meters in, the road was blocked by a fence. Then a few hundred meters to another detour, another fence. We kept going on another even further detour, which suddenly went over a railway, also blocked by a fence. Giving up, we returned to square one to the original blocked road and went over and around the barricades. We didn’t see any construction, and maybe it was possible to get the bikes around.

There were no workers or machines anywhere, or in fact anything wrong with the road at all. It turned out to be by far the best 3km stretch all day. At the end of it we turned towards the coast, which Google Maps recommended as a bicycle route. We’d wasted a lot of time with the morning detours, but still had a theoretical chance to make the ferry in the evening. Until suddenly a driver was waving us to stop - the way we were heading went through a dangerous iron factory and was not accessible on a bicycle.

We turned back, ended up on a highway, exited at the first opportunity, just to find out that the exit went nowhere, got back on the road, ended up on an even bigger highway, finally found a nice quiet paved road and felt better, until that soon deteriorated into an uncyclable nothingness, where again we had to push the bikes, and did I mention it was somehow a hot day with scorching sun in goddamn January? Factories in every direction pumped out their probably toxic fumes.

Roads? Where we're going, we need.. roads.

We had to turn back again, got instructions from a stoner on his way to work, ended up walking on another rocky footpath by the highway to avoid the dangerous traffic, to ask drivers at a truck stop for a lift to somewhere sane, walked back empty-handed on the same rocky path to get to a gas station, just to find that no, we can’t cross the highway there and should just return again to the earlier truck stop and then join the cars on The Roundabout of Complete Chaos.

By this time the sun was setting and we’d spent the entire day getting less than 5km from our campsite. In a couple hours the ferry would leave without us. What a shitty day overall. After one more brief visit to the highway, we simply gave up and started hitchhiking. There was no safe way to continue forward on the bikes.

We stood by the road with thumbs raised for only two minutes, when a truck stopped. The Tunisian driver was friendly, spoke English, and happened to have an empty trailer. Which he was taking to the Port of Marseille, right next to our ferry stop.

Unbelievable.

I’ve felt lucky many times before on this tour, but this was something on a completely different level. I’m very sceptical about concepts like fate, but it’s almost tempting to think that something wanted us to make it to Corsica after all. And now I’m curious to see why.

Tomorrow is going to be another great day.
 

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A Fresh New Year at Camargue National Park

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A Fresh New Year at Camargue National Park

Just as Christmas, Isabelle and I celebrated New Year’s Eve quietly. We rented a room in Arles in South France for two days, to have a nice place to relax and watch fireworks in. Turns out France is not the ideal place for this plan, because fireworks were either illegal or just not cared about. So there wasn't much to see. Which was fine, because by midnight we were as sleepy as two puppies in a basket.

But we did get to relax. That’s something I’ve really felt the need for lately. Being on the road for seven months is beginning to have its effect on me. Not that our cycling distances are particularly strenuous (although now that I’m usually pulling the trailer, uphills are more of a challenge). But just the fact of packing every morning, moving even a short distance, and then finding a new place to sleep can become exhausting. With closed camping grounds, wild camping being illegal, cold weather and sleeping at strangers’ homes, there haven’t been many opportunities to enjoy lazy days of doing nothing.

It will soon be time to take the first long rest of the trip, for a couple weeks or more.

But in the meanwhile, the plan for 2018 is to have more adventures. In the last weeks we’ve spent too much time in unphotogenic towns and cities. It’s time to camp more in nature and other interesting or exotic locations. The first stop of the year: Camargue National Park.

Are you lost, Gringo?

Camargue is a wide open area of flat farmland and wetlands in the delta of the Rhone river. It’s famous for its white horses, pink flamingos, and Camargue bulls bred for the bullfighting arenas of the region. We got to see all of them, but the last two didn’t dare come close enough for my 24-70mm lens.

On the first afternoon we spotted two people walking in what looked like grey robes from a distance. Going in for a closer look, they turned out to indeed be genuine monks out for a stroll. Sleeping in a monastery? Definitely an adventure. We asked whether it was possible, but the prices were 40€ for a room or 10€ for camping outside. Paying to sleep in a monastery? Not an adventure, we agreed, and cycled onwards.

The wind was picking up and there weren’t many options for taking shelter. Few buildings, many fences and gates, no forests - only farmland and tall grass. It was already dark by the time we found a farmhouse with nobody around. Sleeping on haystacks in a barn seemed adequately adventurous.

The truth about being a digital nomad.
Waves of the Mediterranean at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

The next day we cycled to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and reached the shore of the Mediterranean. Neither one of us had seen the sea since we’d met almost three months earlier, so it was a beautiful sight. This also means I’ve cycled across the continent from the far reaches of Northern Scandinavia all the way to South Europe. That feels like an accomplishment.

Finally we could smell the familiar salty scent of the sea, hear the crashing waves, and enjoy the beautiful sunsets. Even the red supermoon rose to greet us when we stopped for a snack by the shore. The weather was pleasantly warm for the first time in months. Due to faraway storms, the wind blew heavily, so we found a somewhat sheltered place near the beach and camped there for two nights doing nothing much.

Camping in a National Park and resting at the same time? Now this is the way to start the new year.

I've really missed sunsets by the sea.
A soft moonrise over the sea.
 

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A Vagrant's Christmas

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A Vagrant's Christmas

After several weeks of being uncharacteristically social, I yearned back to the life of sleeping outdoors as a vagrant with a bicycle. So before Christmas we spent a couple nights in a tent. On the second evening the wind was so strong that we had to take refuge in a half-built garage beside an empty house. Three walls and a roof protected us perfectly from the storm raging outside.

Stomachs full with a delicious sausage and pasta dinner, we settled down to watch a documentary. Halfway through the film our concrete cave was suddenly filled by car headlights. Crap. The house wasn’t so empty after all. I exited my sleeping bag nervously. My French vocabulary was wildly insufficient for explaining why there were suddenly two people, a Cocker Spaniel, and a tent with Christmas lights in whoever’s garage it was.

Garage camping, or "glamping" as I like to call it.

Outside there was a woman who looked scared enough to call the police, but fortunately she wasn’t alone. Neither she nor the man she was with spoke English, but he just laughed it off and wished us a good night. Our luck held up once again. This scene certainly could’ve played out much worse.

The next morning was December 24th. While having breakfast, I was wondering why the dog trailer looked strangely tilted. Then I realised one of the tires was flat. Presumably due to me digging out some sharp rocks and spikes from the rubber the previous day. Merry Christmas.

A gorgeous flat tire lit by the beautiful morning sun.

After changing the tube, we continued a couple hours to near Orange where we had rented an Airbnb cabin for the night. We spent the evening drinking champagne in a sauna and a jacuzzi. Not exactly a traditional way to celebrate Christmas, nor the type of life I’m looking for most of the time. But sometimes it’s nice to enjoy a little luxury, just for a change.

One of France's numerous castles in one of France's numerous sunsets.
Avignon at sunset.

A few days later we passed Avignon and its famous half bridge. I gained a sudden appreciation for old architecture, and decided to make a detour. Isabelle found a place to stay and I continued at night towards Pont du Gard, a famous Roman aqueduct. I arrived at midnight to find the gates closed and a guard’s voice in the radio phone telling me to come back at 9am. I wanted a photo of the landmark at night, so that was unacceptable.

Google Maps offered an alternative way in, via the forest nearby. I pushed my bike through footpaths, trying to be discreet and unnoticed with my headlight. When I found the aqueduct, I discovered it was lit by brightly coloured lights. The colours changed slowly, and I took a time-lapse of the show while looking around.

There was no-one else there, so I had the whole aqueduct to myself. For a 2000-year-old building, it was extremely impressive. The massive size, and the fact that it was still standing two millennia later. All that with the tools and materials that had been available so long ago. The Roman empire accomplished some magnificent things in its time. And yet it fell down, just like the aqueduct eventually will.

Everything is impermanent. This bike trip, our lives, and all the nations and empires around us. So it’s better to spend our limited time focusing on things that matter. Whatever that may be. Or at least to relax and enjoy the ride.

The lights of Pont du Gard at night.
 

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Single Frames - France

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Single Frames - France

Sometimes the journey is so eventful that it’s impossible to recount even a fraction of it. Especially with my attempt to make each blog post about one specific subject. And due to skipping ahead in the last post, there are many untold tales from France. So to return back a little, here’s another edition of single frame stories.

On a side note, this update is probably the only one so far without any nature photos.

In the quaint little town of Cluny, we stayed several days at the home of a lovely madame called Elisabeth. She was in her sixties and enjoyed traveling, so was happy to host a couple of exotic nomads. After all, meeting people from faraway lands is the next best thing to being on the road. Her home was one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever seen, with very zen-like decor. She practiced Tai Chi and meditation with calm music in the background.

Outside was less relaxing, because we happened to be there during the Festival of Light:

Blessings be upon thee!

On our third day in France we were desperate about finding a place to sleep. We were stranded in the city of Metz after sunset, and cycling in the dark without bicycle paths wasn't an option. We even called some hotels, without any luck. By the Metz cathedral we discovered a Christmas market with a huge Ferris wheel, and forgot about our homelessness for an hour to drink mulled wine and take some photos.

As is sometimes the case, you find what you need only when you stop searching for it. Because soon we met Nora, a Moroccan girl with a constant smile on her face. She was working as security for the market, and didn't speak English, but used Google Translate to talk to us. Explaining that she liked to help travellers, she invited us to stay in her home nearby after her shift. We ended up having long conversations with the help of the app, and it really opened up a whole new world of communication. English isn't widely spoken in France, so this tip has saved us many times since then, and will be priceless in the future.

Metz.jpg

When Swedish people travel the world, they have an advantage that the rest of us don’t. It’s called Ikea. Apparently there’s a grocery store in every Ikea store selling genuine Swedish food. Isabelle nearly fainted from sheer joy when she saw one near Metz in France. Then spent what felt like three hours shopping for delicacies from back home while I guarded the bicycles.

Later we stopped so Isabelle could cook some of her new-found treasures for lunch. It’s nice to have some special food every now and then. But I do like traveling with someone who doesn’t require things like fancy restaurants and swimming pools. With bicycle touring the surroundings can get rather unluxurious. If you can be happy cooking Swedish meatballs with frozen fingers in an abandoned warehouse, life is pretty easy.

Kira is also happy wherever she is.

Then again, it's mostly not dirt floors and spray-painted walls when we stop. Along the Voie Verte bike path we had lunch with a nice view of the fortress of Berze. The sky was mostly overcast, but I noticed a sliver of light passing through the hill and got a picture just in time. In the second photo I took only ten seconds later the light on the castle was again flat and boring.

In hindsight, we should've asked if we could stay there for the night.

Earlier I wrote about Dutch hospitality, but I must say the French are no less generous. We've spent almost every night in warm beds after eating three-course dinners (with cheese and wine) with the family we just met. Even when I was cycling without two cute girls for a week people still opened their doors and welcomed me inside when I asked for help. And in the mornings they offer breakfast and even pack us lunch. If there's one thing the French consider important to share, it's food. Below we're eating lunch baguettes prepared for us by a cheerful old lady who hosted us in Chainens.

One of the challenges we’ve had while traveling together is our different speeds. I’ve been much faster with my lighter bike, which sometimes results in me being bored or cold while waiting. Or Isabelle can be stressed about feeling too slow. To balance out the weight and our speeds, we finally came up with a decent solution. All it took was a little rearranging:

The main reason I wanted the trailer is because now the colours match so much better.

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Of Things Frozen and Melted

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Of Things Frozen and Melted

In France, the snow fell. Frost covered the branches reaching above the canal. And I was cycling alone.

After meeting Isabelle two months ago, it has been an eventful and tumultuous time. So many things have happened it feels like a year has passed. Perhaps it’s clear that things between us have developed more and earlier than I’ve mentioned. At first I didn’t feel it was right to discuss it here, and recently was more interested in actually living life and seeing what happens, rather than write about it. Nor do I ever want to turn this into a relationship blog. But it’s time for a little recap.

I hope this road will take me somewhere warm.

The first weeks were great. Too good to be true, almost. Normally I take a long time to get to know people, but we clicked right away. It was a whole new experience of openness and honesty, as opposed to the gradual undoing of reservations and distance that I’ve previously had a tendency for.

But then, when feelings get involved, things get more complicated. Especially when we both bring our own emotional baggages. We suddenly became scared that this thing could become serious. Maybe too good to be true was right. And what about our solo trips? There was no room for a relationship in our plans. Each of us took turns running or pushing the other away. Each time it didn’t work, or brought us closer.

Nothing can survive in this barren landscape.
When I stopped the bike for a photo, I realised the road was so slippery I could barely walk on it.

Yet there I was again, alone on an icy cycling path. Few people were interested in being outdoors on such a cold day, with the exception of some hunters yelling in the forest. White cranes glided above the water towards safety.

We had separated for several days. Both hoping to travel south faster on our own, as well as a final test to see whether we could continue together. I certainly needed time to think. My habit of pushing people away was kicking in strong, but at the same time I found myself missing Isabelle already. She hitchhiked a few hundred kilometres ahead, and some days I broke previous distance records for the trip to get to her, and at other times I felt so frustrated and drained that I could barely move forward. The fear of her not waiting was surpassed by the fear of sharing my life with someone. Back and forth.

Cycling around the world is so easy compared to the task of dealing with my own emotions. A frozen heart takes a long time to thaw.

I left home hoping to never experience cold winters and snow again.

After a week of this I was in Chalon, right before the final stretch. Isabelle had eventually decided to wait. She was half a day’s ride away, and I stopped for a coffee with a Warmshowers host, who turned out to be quite an angel. We only spoke briefly, but her energy and presence gave me the last encouragement I needed to get past my fears. I finally knew what I wanted. It really wasn’t all that complicated.

I cycled to Isabelle and told her. Having found courage, but still lacking wisdom, it wasn’t easy nevertheless. We still had fights to go through and problems to sort. I had to open my heart and connect with her in a way I had never had the strength to even consider before.

There are many treasures I expected to find on this journy. Countless beautiful places and photographs, fascinating people, experiences both positive and bad to learn from. One thing I never expected to discover was love. Perhaps now, against all odds, it has found me.

Looks like this will be a two-person trip from now on.

A bridge over cold water.
 

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Coincidences

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Coincidences

Last year when I was cycling in Lofoten, Norway’s mountains wore out both of my break pads near the end of the tour. With a heavy bicycle in a hilly country, this is a big problem. I looked for a solution in a bike shop in Leknes, which didn’t have the right parts, but the nice mechanic recommended the lovely nearby Uttakleiv beach while waiting. I walked the bike there and enjoyed my stay, but had to end my trip there because I ran out of time and never got my bike fixed.

Well, on this trip back in Sommarøy I met nice a couple on holiday from South Norway. They were riding borrowed bicycles, and the man mentioned the brakes weren’t so great on his. Sympathetic to brake issues after my previous experience, I offered to tighten them. This lead to more talking, and me mentioning this blog. Later on I received an email from him, because he visited my Route page and saw the request for travel tips. The one place he said I should absolutely visit - Uttakleiv beach.

So I ended up in Uttakleiv because my brakes broke, which a year later made me fix the brakes of a stranger, who then ended up recommending Uttakleiv. There’s a funny symmetry to that.

A throwback to a morning in the Netherlands.

More recently in Luxembourg, we had trouble finding a place to stay after dark. In Bettendorf, Isabelle went to a flower shop with a café to ask for help. She came out with a big smile, which always means we’re in for a special treat. And we were - the two sisters who owned the place had told her we could sleep in their greenhouse. +12 degrees and dry was a huge improvement from the 0°C and raining that the outdoors had to offer that night.

We sat in their Flower Power café / pub while waiting for closing time, before we could take our bikes and sleeping bags in. By the owner’s recommendation, we tried a new local cider called Ramborn. Not only was it tasty, but also well timed, since we’d been looking for cider in the store earlier that day, but hadn’t found any.

Another earlier photo. The weather hasn't been great for the camera lately, so recent photos have been few and far between.

Two days later, after the events of the previous update, we arrived in Junglinster. It was dark again with no camping options. Isabelle had a cold, so we chose to knock on doors and ask for warmer accommodation. The first person we asked only understood French, but we got lucky with the second house. A very friendly couple let us in and ordered Chinese food while we told our stories. They lived in a beautifully furnished modern house, with a line of Dior and Chanel perfumes in the bathroom, and quality whiskeys on the living room shelf. I wasn’t surprised to hear the husband was a bank manager.

I was surprised to hear about their other side project. For a few years, they’d been getting into the cider business with their own brand. They were the makers of the very same Ramborn we’d drank by the greenhouse. Completely randomly, we had decided to ring their doorbell out of the countless others around.

I don’t search for a deeper meaning or divine guidance in these little coincidences like many other people seem to, but they are pretty cool nonetheless.

Typical view in Luxembourg: Rolling hills and forest.
From Martin's photo tour in Goesdorf, Luxembourg.
 

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Tears in Luxembourg

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Tears in Luxembourg

Back in Senja during the first month of my trip, I met a cyclist called Martin, on his way to Nordkapp. I was on my way to Andenes on the ferry he arrived on. We had less than two minutes to talk, but it was enough for him to invite me to Luxembourg if I would visit it later. He lived in Goesdorf, which was my first stop in the country. Martin and Arlette were incredibly sweet and accommodating, treating us to showers and laundry, food and guided photo tours around the area and in Luxembourg City. 

I was a little preoccupied with thoughts about my future route, and especially whether I would be continuing alone or not. If I wanted to continue via the Black Forest in Germany, I knew Isabelle wouldn’t be able to join me. There were too many mountains and the weather was too cold. Even with her new sleeping bag, she had Kira to think of. And although there is no hurry anywhere, I felt a growing frustration about our slow pace of travel. I wanted to spend more time in special nature areas and cycle faster through the more boring parts in between.

Then again, Isabelle and I had gotten very close during the previous few weeks. We had the same sense of humour, which made every day fun. We had very similar views on almost everything, plus common interests. And when you’re camping and touring with someone like this, you get to know the real person with all their gritty imperfections. As opposed to whatever shining public image people naturally try to display.

Isabelle practicing photography with her 50mm f/1.8 lens.
Sometimes the bikes need alone time.

Despite all the similarities, we were also different enough to keep things interesting. I was learning a lot from her carefree way of approaching life, and my comfort zone was expanding rapidly. Touring with her was undeniably more enjoyable than being alone. And often easier, with less need to leave the bicycle unguarded, and more opportunities to sleep in houses with beds and showers.

But did I really want to share my journey and dreams with someone? In my mind I had this idea of what my trip would look like, and it felt difficult to let go of it. It was a solo tour. Just me against the world. Alone with my camera. Sharing the road only via my photos. I wasn’t built for this kind of travel, for making compromises. The Black Forest was waiting for me.

The Ardennes on the Luxembourg side was quite beautiful.

In a small village called Dillingen, it was a particularly cold day. Only a couple degrees above zero. Our pace was so slow I wasn’t getting warm from the cycling. We needed a shower, but every place was closed for the season. My mood was grim, and it felt like I was sacrificing the very freedom that I was searching for.

We found a cafe and stopped to warm up by two mugs of hot chocolate. I told Isabelle we couldn’t continue together further than this. I had to move faster, see more places, spend more time alone, and focus on my photography. We had to separate here. She understood - she had her own doubts as well.

We hugged. We cried. We kissed.

And then we got back on the road and continued together, in the same direction.

Schiessentümpel cascade with the ND1000 filter.
Sometimes the weather and landscape doesn't have much to offer beyond a few drops of water.
 

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Winter in Belgium

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Winter in Belgium

With the arrival of November, the weather took a significant dive. Double digit daytime temperatures were a thing of the past, and at night it dipped even below zero a couple times. It was the inevitable consequence of cycling south at this pace. With Finnish genes and warm gear the cold weather still wasn’t a disaster for me, but Isabelle couldn’t really handle camping anymore. At least until she'd get to Luxembourg where a new sleeping bag was waiting for her.

This caused some friction, because I had been looking forward to sleeping outside more again. Southeast Belgium has a lot of beautiful forest areas in the Ardennes, which sounded nice for camping. In Holland we had mostly slept indoors, which usually results in very little alone time. And there is a limit to how much peopleing I can do. After a while I get exhausted and need to recharge in a quiet place somewhere out in nature.

As a solution, in the Hoge Kempen and the Hautes Fagnes National Parks in Belgium we cycled separate routes and met up in the evening. This gave me a chance to spend extra time taking photos and enjoying some important solitude.

Our first glimpse of Belgium was still colourful and pleasant.
Hoge Kempen in the morning light.

In addition to the seasons, there were also major changes to the terrain. Since Denmark there hadn’t been any uphills whatsoever, but Hautes Fagnes included a climb up to 700m. And there were many more hills ahead. This made cycling even slower, but at least the scenery was finally improving. On the other hand, autumn colours were turning brown and the landscape was often shrouded in fog.

Through the Ardennes we could travel on an old railroad that had been turned into a bicycle path. This was perfect, because Belgians don’t always seem to be the greatest of drivers. Many drive at retarded speeds, and Isabelle had a close call with a truck driver who probably thought “patience” is some kind of Calvin Klein fragrance. So the paved railway was a real luxury. Not only were there no cars, but the slight inclines meant for locomotives were very easy to handle with heavy touring loads.

Every little village has an old church in this part of the world.

When we were in a French-speaking village called Faymonville it even snowed a few centimetres one day. It didn't really affect us however, because we spent the day resting. The previous night we were looking for a place to stay when a car stopped and a woman asked if we needed help. When we explained the situation, she told us to follow her. Within a couple minutes we were taken to her hair salon where she had a studio apartment in the back.

She introduced herself as Caroline, with a heavy accent. She was like a character from a French movie, looking very chic, smoking cigarettes inside and pouring us some red wine. She wouldn't be 'ome for two days, and of course we could stay alone in her apartment and business place for the whole weekend!

So next morning I woke up and looked out the window to see snow falling. I briefly considered getting up to take photos, but just went back to sleep instead.

Merci beaucoup!

Wake up, it's time to ride!
Some of the water drops were still frozen when it was time to be back on the road.
 

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It's a Dog's Life

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It's a Dog's Life

Hi. My name is Kira. I’m from Sweden, six years old, and also a Cocker Spaniel. And I’m a very good girl.

My all-time favourite thing to do is eating. I prefer food, but almost anything will do. I get to eat my own meals twice a day, for breakfast and dinner. Then when the humans eat, I get some of their food if I look cute. And I’m always cute. I don’t even have to try.

If I'm given non-food, it's usually a stick. I like sticks. Being outside is great because there are so many sticks. I chew them until it's time to leave.

Nothing can get between Kira and her stick. Except another stick.

One time long ago I found the big bag that all my food comes from. That was the best day ever. I ate 15 times more food than usual and I was still hungry. When mistress came back she wasn’t happy. Something about swelling in the stomach. We went to the vet, who made me barf many times. I tried to eat it again, but wasn’t allowed.

My second favourite thing is sleeping. I’m very good at it. Sometimes I can do it all day. When we are moving it can be difficult to sleep. Then I’m extra tired and don’t like waiting for the tent to be ready. But it’s warm inside and I have many blankets. When mistress goes to sleep I can go in her sleeping bag. She says I snore but I don’t believe her.

Once or twice a week we don’t cycle and it’s usually because there’s a house to sleep in. Houses are great because they are warm and have beds in them. I’m really good at using beds.

This is what she looks like two minutes after entering any house for the first time.

My third favourite hobby is smelling things. Traveling is great because I get to find so many new smells. I like to open the zipper of the trailer enough to stick my nose out when we’re cycling. There’s a lot of information in the air.

Even better is when we stop in a forest and I can walk around and smell things. If it’s not too wet I take a break from smelling things to roll around in the leaves. But not too long. I don't want to leave the trailer behind, because that's where all the food is. When other dogs get too close to it, I growl at them.

I think she likes forests.

32 breakfasts ago, we met Tomi. He’s cycling too. But I guess you already knew that. He scratches my tummy, so I know he likes me. He eats too much of his own food though. There’s usually nothing left for me.

I think he and mistress are having fun. They don’t chew sticks or smell things, but they laugh a lot. Then they say they’re not laughing at me. But I’m not sure. It’s okay though. I have a pretty good life.

She's really good at typing.

I don't know if Kira will be writing more guest blogs in the future, but apparently she has now joined Instagram as Nomad Doggy. -Tomi

 

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Dutch Hospitality

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Dutch Hospitality

My stay in the Netherlands was much less focused on nature than most other places so far. Partly because the country has a pretty high population density, and partly because traveling with a Hurricane leads to a huge increase in social situations. Isabelle has a lot of friends in the Netherlands, and also makes new ones easily. Especially with the very welcoming Dutch people. So lately I’ve been doing less stealth camping and more sleeping in rural areas.

In the Weerribben-Wieden National Park further north we couldn’t find any forests or open camping grounds, so Isabelle and Ilse (when she was still cycling with us) asked for tent space in the lawn of a big farmhouse. Within minutes we were setting up camp between the barn and the horse fence. A very social black mixed-breed dog called Lola came to demand scratches and seemed in need of attention, so I took a frisbee and played fetch with her for an hour. I got tired first even though she was doing all the running. When I woke up the next morning she came to my tent with the frisbee in her mouth and tail wagging eagerly.

Country road, take me home...

In Vught we met Yvette, who has travelled with Isabelle in South America. There were extra beds for us at her parents’ place. We came in from the rain and were immediately sat down in front of a table so full of Chinese food that it could’ve fed a dozen hungry cyclists. The next day we got a tour of the local forest and nearby city Den Bosch.

Clocks were turned back an hour on that same day, so when we returned to the road in the afternoon the sun was already setting. After riding only 7km we had to stop in a small village called Esch. Isabelle asked around for accommodation, and we were given tent space at the playground of the Enchanted Forest Pancake House. The owners were awesome and even offered us free pancakes when they heard about our travel plans.

... to the place, I belong ...

In Eindhoven we stopped by an outdoor gear store called Bever. We've gotten many warnings about bicycle thieves, so the staff let us roll our bikes inside for safety while we did our shopping. There was free hot chocolate for customers. When I asked for any suggestions on where to find a camping ground for a shower (these are harder to find in the off season), they told us we could use the shower right there in the store! Not exactly a standard shopping experience.

In Neeroeteren we got to stay inside again for two nights at a couple who were Isabelle's old colleagues. That was admittedly on the Belgian side, but the woman was from the Netherlands, so I think it counts as an example of Dutch hospitality. When we left we cycled to the Hoge Kempen National Park, and stopped at Café De Statie, an old train station turned into a pub café. The very friendly owners let us sleep out back on the storage room floor. It was a cold and rainy night and there were wild boars in the park, so we were happy to be dry and safe.

By that point I wasn’t even surprised to hear they were also Dutch.

... Western Europe, forest floor ...

Near Maastricht we crossed the border again for one last stop in the Netherlands in a little village called Eckelrade. The sun was setting so we asked for a place to stay. The local pastor kindly organised a small house for us nearby. Before we even got there, a woman stopped to ask about our trips and invited us for dinner with her family. And later when we felt tired and in need of extra rest days, the nice owner of our house came to inform us we could stay another night if we wanted, free of charge.

As much as I love to look at beautiful wide open landscapes, finding sunlight falling just right on the small details is really satisfying.

Perhaps you can tell from the way I’m writing this, that I can’t really find the words to describe how appreciative I am of all this generosity. It’s all been quite overwhelming in the Netherlands since the first day in Stellingen. Without exception the Dutch people have been incredibly warm, friendly and happy to help a pair of bicycle travellers in any way they can.

All I can say is a million thanks to everyone for their kind gestures. Everything from the passing smiles and greetings, to opening their doors and offering food or a place to sleep, warms my heart and gives me faith in the humanity of strangers.

And this is why I travel.

Wake up, it's a beautiful life.
 

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Hoornaar

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Hoornaar

Remember the couple from that camping ground in Norway during a three-day downpour? They live in Holland in a small village called Hoornaar, so we paid them a visit. A replacement for my broken SSD drive was waiting for me at their address. Originally I thought we’d stay maybe a night or two, but upon arrival it turned out that various activities had been planned for us, so there’d be no hurry to leave.

Jan is a retired headmaster of a Christian school with a calm demeanour. Corrie has the kind of helpful and caring personality that you might expect from a housewife from the sixties. She conjured up amazingly delicious dinners every night we stayed there. They have been married for over 50 years, and I can see why.

I was expecting space for our tents in their garden, but instead we were given a whole summer cabin to ourselves. Later I learnt that Corrie had never allowed overnight visitors to this cabin until our visit, so it was quite an honour to stay there. It was a quaint little place by a small river lining the beautiful countryside houses. “Romantisch”, our hosts pointed out.

Hoornaar in the morning.

They had endearingly old-fashioned views, where Isabelle was expected to take care of all the cooking and other kitchen activities. And yet this was combined with unabashed curiosity about the status of our travel partnership after having met only two weeks earlier. In fact, quite a few people seem to share this interest and are asking if we’re going to cycle around the world together as a couple now. Personally, I think it seems a touch early to be considering such a thing.

We arrived on Tuesday and already by Wednesday afternoon I was being interviewed for a local newspaper. The reporter was one of Jan’s old students. Again we took questions about whether we were a couple already, with Corrie fanning the flames mischievously. Our picture was taken by a veteran photographer who, among many other subjects, had shot the queen of the Netherlands more than a thousand times. Going from the queen to us is quite a career drop. I tried to look regal to make him feel better. Judging by the photo, I looked more like the court jester.

On Thursday Jan gave us a photo tour of the surroundings. In the morning we went to Kinderdijk, a famous UNESCO site of an area with 19 windmills east of Rotterdam. In the afternoon we saw the Biesbosch National Park, where Jan shared a lot of interesting information about the history of the area. After another great dinner, I went with him to a meeting of the local photo club.

Kinderdijk with the ND1000 filter.
Weather at Biesbosch was too grey for landscapes, so we took macros instead.

Speaking in front of an audience is a pretty scary thought to me, so I was anxious at first when Jan asked me to show some photographs and talk about my trip. On the other hand, it was also an excellent opportunity to get out of my comfort zone, so I was eager to give it a try. No reason to let such fears control your life, after all.

There were about 20-30 people at the club. When I introduced myself in front of the group, they suddenly remembered that there was a microphone around somewhere. I guess my voice doesn’t exactly fill a room. I did a slideshow of two dozen of my more or less favourite photos of the trip so far. I talked about the shooting or processing workflow of each photo, and pointed out where I’d made mistakes.

Past the initial nervousness I started to get into the whole thing and actually enjoyed it. Afterwards I spoke with several of the members and overall had a great time. I felt an excited rush long after we had left.

We were supposed to leave the next day, but it had been such an eventful and tiring day that we decided to rest and stay for one more night. We could’ve happily stayed for weeks, but winter is coming and it’s better to keep heading towards the southern climate. So on Saturday we said our goodbyes to Jan and Corrie. Their last gift was a fresh copy or the newspaper article: “Tomi Rantanen cycles around the world.”

 I’ll never forget their friendship and hospitality, and hope we’ll get to meet again some day.

Jan, Isabelle and Corrie before our departure.
Throwback to the previous spiderweb field.
 

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It's Always Sunny in the Netherlands

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It's Always Sunny in the Netherlands

I’m just gonna go ahead and be honest here: Not all places are equal. There were a lot of good things about Germany (the excellent bicycle lanes for example), but overall I just didn’t enjoy my stay there. Crossing into the Netherlands turned everything around.

Farmland seemed more idyllic, architecture more beautiful, the traffic less hectic. Even the weather improved and the sun came out. People were suddenly much more laid back and helpful, and they spoke English almost everywhere.

Despite being a very densely populated country, there were still some forests and nature to be found. In one tiny forest between two farms Isabelle woke me up because the light was great for photography. Which is one of the very few things I don’t mind waking up early for. There was a thick layer of fog and the sun was about to rise. I packed up my stuff quickly and cycled on alone taking photographs in the misty yellow light. After an hour I found an overgrown pasture with thousands of spiderwebs and I stayed there until Isabelle caught up with me for breakfast.

Cycling without a destination on a morning like this is the best thing in the world.
The entire field was full of spiderwebs everywhere you looked.

Later that day we rode through the Dwingelderveld National Park, with bicycle lanes going through an old forest painted with autumn colours. On the other side of the forest the landscape suddenly turned into something resembling the African savannah.

Here be lions.

Isabelle’s old work friend Ilse joined us in Wittelte on her bicycle. She's a funny Dutch girl who took the role of our local tour guide for four days. My experience of the Netherlands improved even more, with someone showing us around a few of the more hidden places, translating signs and explaining the local history. Mid-October brought a record heatwave and excellent camping weather.

In Giethoorn we cycled in "the Venice of Holland”, a village nestled among small canals with fairytale houses everywhere. It was so quaint and idyllic that the entire village looked like one huge museum or film set. Further evidenced by the signs in Chinese telling tourists not to walk inside the houses, because people actually live in them.

We stopped to sit at the terrace of a nice restaurant, where Ilse ordered lunch and pancakes in Dutch. I found out why she and Isabelle are friends, when my dessert was brought in by a line of smiling waitresses with sparkly fireworks wishing me another happy birthday. It looked like they were about to break into song, but probably thought better of it because I was sinking so far into my chair I almost broke the backrest.

"Act normal", I said.

"Act normal", I said.

Isabelle, Ilse and Kira, all ready to start the day.

After Ilse left us we had an evening of uncharacteristically bad weather. The headwind was awful, it rained horizontally, and we couldn’t find a place to stay. Camping was out of the question, so at sunset we started knocking on doors again. Outside a small village we tried a couple farmhouses without any luck. The neighbourhood seemed to be getting more and more expensive, and we came to one place that was really more of a mansion, probably costing millions. There was a fence around the premise, with a keypad and security camera by the gigantic black metal gate.

Clearly not the kind of place that would welcome two soggy Scandinavian bicycle bums looking for a place to sleep after dark. It would be a waste of time to even try, I thought. I looked around to share my assessment with Isabelle, but she was already ringing the doorbell, fixing her hair, and motioning me to come in front of the camera: “Try to look non-threatening!”

To my astonishment, the gate opened and a grey-haired man in his sixties came to the door. He didn’t speak English, but seemed unafraid and willing to help, and the words “tent”, “rain” and “roof” are universal hand signals. He opened the door to the barn and we were thrilled to have a nice clean dry floor to sleep on.

Then the wife walked in, introducing herself with a smile. She said this won’t do at all, and ordered us inside the house into a spare room, which she used as her painter's atelier. She didn’t speak English either, but chattered away with such bubbly friendliness that we managed to understand most of what she said regardless.

We changed into dry clothes and she returned with tea and an evening snack before we called it a night. In the morning she made us a huge breakfast better than in most of the expensive hotels I’ve been to in my life.

In the end, I still don't know much about the couple, except that they were willing to trust two complete strangers by letting them into their home. And that is a beautiful thing.

Some leaves are more quick to accept change than others.
 

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Hurricane Isabelle

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Hurricane Isabelle

After a number of bike trips almost entirely done solo, I have become accustomed to doing things my way. When traveling alone, there’s no need to wait for anyone or to make compromises. The more this has become a habit, the more hesitant I’ve been to allow others to join me. I would never commit to a long trip with someone without trying it out first. Sharing the road temporarily with a tourer I meet along the way is much easier, because we both have our own gear and can separate again at any time.

I met Isabelle towards the end of my stay in Germany. She's a freckle-faced blue-eyed adventurer who rarely stops talking. Kira is the quieter one, usually sitting behind in her trailer smelling the world go past. Although I had many doubts about whether it would work, we’re getting along quite nicely. We complement each other well. She is fearless in all the ways that I am not, asking people for help and knocking on doors when campsites are unavailable, whereas I’m more at ease with dark forests and some other aspects of touring life.

I made sure there was some forest camping too.

This became evident early on. Close to the town of Papenburg in West Germany, we were surrounded by wide open farmland with animal fences, which isn’t exactly great for camping. We were wet and cold from the rain, and the sun was setting. My strategy of dealing with the situation was to stare at my phone screen looking at Google Maps satellite images for some trees to hide our tents, while Isabelle was looking at the windows of farmhouses for any friendly people returning a smile and a wave.

I was all proud about finding a forest only two kilometres away, but she was already chatting (without a common language) to the family living in the second house we passed. They did seem suspicious at first, but eventually we were led to the empty barn, safe from the weather. We made our beds on the straw and were invited to the house for evening tea before going to sleep.

In all the years I’ve travelled, I have literally never done this kind of thing. Since starting in June I had slept in a tent for four months straight. I was quite impressed.

One squeaky mouse was running around at first, but settled down when we wanted to sleep.

And there was more. A couple days later, on October (cough)th, it happened to be my birthday. I don’t like to be the centre of attention, so rarely tell people when this occurs. But I had to explain why I was in no mood for pasta and tuna, and wanted to eat something special that day. I told my new travel companion not to make a big deal out of it. She said sure, and then proceeded to tell everyone we met.

It may look like a lot for a Cocker Spaniel to pull, but this one's pretty spicy for her size.

In the late afternoon we came to an idyllic little town called Sellingen in the Netherlands. While shopping for barbecue goodies and pancake materials, a man who looked like the owner of the store asked if we are on holiday. Paraphrasing Isabelle's usual cheerful self: “Hi! We are cyclists! We come from Scandinavia! I am so cute! I have a dog! We have no place to camp! It’s his birthday!”

The man made a couple phone calls in Dutch and explained that the camping grounds were closed, but he arranged a place for us in one of them anyway. The owners would pick us up shortly, and we could wait in their son’s bar/cafe in the meanwhile. We went there, heads spinning from the helpfulness, and the bar owner walked over to shake my hand, “First of all, happy birthday!”

Everyone continued to be super friendly and we got free drinks while we waited, and I received a heartwarming video call from my brother and niece back home. So all in all, it was an excellent day already. Then the camping ground owners showed up, a hippy-looking couple with bright eyes and that look of joyful wisdom that people have when they’ve lived right and aged well.

We were led to a quiet place in the woods, a camping ground with plenty of space. The woman explained they could fit 60 people but only took in 15 because everyone deserved their space and privacy in nature. After some of the claustrophobic caravan clusters I saw in Germany, this principle sounded just heavenly. Since we were the only ones there, they gave us the use of a cabin and showers, free of charge. It was my birthday, after all.

Kira contemplating the many duties of a dog's life.

Amazing. We spent the evening high on life, cooking pork steaks and chicken fillet with salad and cheese-stuffed grilled paprikas. We drank wine by the fireplace while sharing stories of our adventures. There were even actual beds to sleep in. Kira snuggled up next to me, then started snoring with the volume of a much larger dog.

I won’t soon forget the generosity of the people in Sellingen. And it turns out that touring with company isn’t so bad either.

Autumn leaves in the morning.
 

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The Strained One

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The Strained One

The B&W photos in this update (including the banner image that you can always see by clicking the title of the post) are some of my older work. Only the last colour photo was taken during this trip, in Denmark.


The title refers to a poem I read in the Reinheimen National Park back in Norway. It has stayed with me ever since:

He has no time to stop
And no time to look.
People he meets are none
Of his personal business.

Numerous the things to manage,
Hurry is the way of life,
Obligations around every bend.
The more he does the more there is.

The day is at an end.
Stumbling over his stick
He asks what life has given,
And what after all is left.

Thus he hurried through life
And never reached his end.
The joy that followed his track
Was a shadow lost in his wake.

— Jan-Magnus Bruheim

Taken in 2015 in Pallastunturi, Finland.

While someone who takes five years for a bike trip is surely not the 'target audience' for this poem, there is nevertheless much to learn here for me.

Sometimes I focus too much on photography, blogging, time-lapse videos and other digital activities. Although I love creating all of those and they help to finance the trip, they mustn't come at the cost of stopping to see, feel and experience. It would be a tragedy to cycle around the world with an air of self-centred hurry - never paying attention to the moments, chances, people and life fleeting past.

It’s easier - much easier - to be present for your life during a journey like this, but it still doesn’t happen automatically.

So I do need to pay attention to the balance between doing things and being here. I don’t know what the right balance looks like, it’s just something I will be figuring out along the way. Lately I’ve shot very few time-lapses, and next I may try posting blog updates less often. Don't worry, I won't stop doing either of those entirely. I just need to make sure these things don’t become more important than the actual trip itself.

Taken in 2015 in Repovesi National Park, Finland.

In somewhat related news, I have been joined by a Swedish bicycle tourer called Isabelle who is pedalling south with her Cocker Spaniel Kira. She is a super social and talkative morning person, while I... am not. So we may not endure each other for very long. But on the other hand, she also has plenty of time and travels very slow. She doesn’t care about the destination, only the journey. Which is precisely the right attitude for this kind of travel.

And it could be nice to have some company for a change.

2017 in South Denmark right before crossing the German border.
 

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Xavier

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Xavier

It’s always been a difficult thing for me to ask for help in most situations. Accepting help that gets offered has gradually gotten easier, especially thanks to bicycle touring and the countless wonderful people I’ve met during them. But asking a stranger for something that hasn’t been offered feels like a very different thing. When I hitchhiked through the tunnel in Norway, my heart was beating every time I raised my thumb. Of course I’m glad I get out of my comfort zone and do things that scare me, but they’re still scary at the time.

I was eating breakfast under a bus stop in Bremerhaven after my rude awakening in the last update. I had dried my laptop, camera and hard drives with tissues as best I could, and moved them into a dry pannier. It looked like I may have avoided permanent damage. I’d even managed to nap a couple more hours, during which the tent and sleeping bag of course had taken in even more water. When I exited out into the rain, I poured out so much water from the bottom of the tent that I could’ve filled a coffee pot with it.

So under this bus stop, for the first time so far, I checked my phone for Warmshowers hosts nearby (basically Couchsurfing for cyclists). If hitchhiking is challenging, asking someone I’ve never met online if I could come over for a night, is several zones outside of comfort. It took me 45 minutes to send a message. Of course I tried to make it cool and casual. Like 'Germany hates me and my life’s work is underwater, would be kinda nice to meet though. No biggie if it’s any inconvenience at all. I do this kind of thing all the time.'

Achtung - possible flooding.

While waiting for an answer I continued very slowly onwards. At one point I met a cycle touring couple on their way north. Which was weird, because I was going south and yet they were headed in the same direction. I pointed this out, and the man kind of frowned for a moment, but rallied and decided they were on the right path. I pointed out their location in Google Maps, which wasn’t where he expected to be, but still he insisted to keep going. I pointed out that the harbour, which was right there to the right, should really be on their left when going north. He wasn’t having any of it.

I shrugged and quietly pedalled with them for a couple blocks, until they stopped to ask a harbour custom’s officer for instructions. Looking behind me, I saw her pointing in the direction we came from. Accepting new information can be difficult too, I suppose.

My plan B, the next camping ground, was across the river in Nordenham. There were no bridges because of the boat traffic to Bremen. I went to check out the ferry stop and there were two Swiss cyclists heading to Amsterdam. They seemed more reasonable people, and I couldn’t wait for a reply from Warmshowers much longer, so I hopped on the next ferry with them for a chat. It’s getting late in the season for bicycle touring, so these meetings are getting rare compared to summer in Norway. And I could use a bit of cheering up right then.

I made it to the camping ground and it was like I’d gone through the gates of heaven. Very helpful owner who even spoke English, the sun came out, I dried my gear, found out the electronics had survived, had a shower, ate well… finally a place to take it easy. I knew I’d require at least two nights of rest. It wasn’t crowded like the previous places, there were city rabbits munching on the grass, and the first night a small hedgehog woke me up by trying to squeeze under my tent a few inches from my face. I shoo’d it off as too spiky of a companion.

There wasn't a lot to take pictures of during this time.

I felt rested after a couple days, but the weather just kept getting worse. Looking at 9m/s headwinds, I made an easy decision to stay another night. Surely the conditions would improve soon, I thought. The fourth day of my stay was when storm Xavier hit Germany… Hurricane level winds that exceeded 100km/h flooded streets and caused a lot of damage. Several people died from falling trees. It was the strongest storm I’ve ever experienced.

The owners invited me indoors for safety. There was just enough shelter for my tent that it wasn’t at too much risk of getting blown away, but a large branch flying through could’ve been a disaster. One of the caravans had its front porch tossed above its roof with the tarp and metal pipes in a tangled mess.

The aftermath made me realise that not only was the previous weather actually not that bad in comparison, but I was fortunate to have had the slight trouble with rain, because it had brought me to this place. If I had been camping on the shore by the dike, out in the open, I don’t know what would’ve happened.

Pier under water in Nordenham.
I tried my hand at macro shots at the camping ground.
 

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Germany is a Cruel Mistress

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Germany is a Cruel Mistress

After the great experience at the lighthouse, challenges started piling up again. I had a hard time coming to grips with Germany. It wasn’t anything major, just many small things adding together. The near-continuous headwind set the mood, and everything else made it worse.

I would wake up before joggers and dog walkers found my campsite, and look for a camping ground with a shower. 3G connection in rural areas was surprisingly awful for such an advanced first world country. This meant no Google Maps or info on routes or destinations, so I’d cycle the wrong way just to return empty-handed.

Yep, still going along the dike.

Asking people for directions didn't work, because in the German countryside, very few speak English. People are usually friendly - often saying hello when cycling by, or stopping to ask something about me or my bike. But when I say ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak German?', 90% of conversations end right there.

Although not everyone is friendly. Some people respond to my ‘hello' by looking at me with such disdain that I may as well be literally poop in human form.

Which also reminds me - businesses are not so helpful to passing travellers looking for a toilet. But you can use the disgusting public bathroom without a seat three kilometres that way. Oh and no, the showers are only for overnight guests.

Although one particular morning brought nice conditions with autumn morning light.

Camping grounds can be hideous as well. After crossing the Elbe on a ferry to Cuxhaven, it was late and raining and I tried to find a place to sleep. Two other camping grounds were either full or closed, until I found one where the owner was a tough-as-nails old lady. She looked at me like some idiot. Trying to find a tent place, in late September, without a reservation? Shaking her head she looked for a free spot among a thousand white caravans parked inches from each other.

She pointed her flashlight at a bit of grass surrounded by caravans. From her gesturing I understood that it was the only available place. The grass squelched from the rainwater. And I didn’t see how my neighbours wouldn’t stumble over my tent when they’d wake up. I basically would’ve had to put some of my stakes under their cars. Why do people stay in these overcrowded trailer parks? I genuinely don’t comprehend the appeal of them. "We have a home on wheels that we can drive practically anywhere on Earth - let’s park it in a Tetris block of mobile homes until the holiday is over."

Even while tired and frustrated, I preferred to return to the rain and darkness rather than take that spot. After examining satellite images under a bus stop I rode another few kilometres to a forest behind a hospital and camped there. It was midnight, but I had to set the alarm to after six to leave early, because I wasn’t supposed to be there.

I'll take a horror movie forest over a shitty camping ground any day.

It continued like this. Too little sleep, back into the demoralising headwind, rear brakes start dragging on the disc and need adjusting, nope - you can’t use the toilets here either, now the front shifter isn’t shifting, and the chain is rusting from all the rain... nothing went my way.

Oh, you want to have a rest day? Nein, das kamping ground ist closed. No good news anywhere. Finally in Bremerhaven I camped in the only place I could find, by the shore near a massive cargo harbour. It was a windy spot, and it rained hard during the night. I slept uneasily in the storm. The wind forced the outer fly of my tent against the inner mesh, which sometimes causes a few drops of water to seep through.

At 4am I woke up to a strange sensation. My sleeping bag was wet, as well as the backpack with my electronics. There was a puddle around me. For the first time in about 400 nights of camping, my tent had failed me.

Fucking hell.

To expand my time-lapse horizons, I started a new series of cityscapes with this scene.
"The day does shine on a pile of twigs as well", as the wise old saying in Finland goes.
 

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A Night by a Lighthouse

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A Night by a Lighthouse

As soon as I crossed the border into Germany, things started going downhill.

First there was an unrelenting headwind, which has kept blowing pretty much every day since then. I wanted to stay on the coast to follow the national park, and there wasn't really anything to stop the wind in these flatlands. In many places there was a road on both sides of the dike, and I could choose between a view of the farmland to the west, or the sea to the east.

In both cases, every kilometre or less was interrupted by a sheep fence. I had to unmount, open the gate, get the bike across, and close the gate, all the while trying not to step on too much sheep shit. Sometimes there was so much of it that I could barely see the road underneath. That’s because these animals are idiots and tend to congregate by the fences, even when they have tons of land to roam freely on. After a few days I was getting pretty fed up with the sharply stinging smell of sheep crap and urine blown on my face by the strong gales.

The views weren't great on either side of the dike.

The problem with cycling inland was that I couldn’t really see anything resembling a forest or a place to camp. Everything that wasn’t someone’s home or yard had been turned into farmland. On the coast I was at least able to camp on the hidden side of the dike, sometimes even finding a place without sheep. Since this probably wasn’t allowed, I had to pitch my tent at dusk and leave at dawn, to avoid being seen. Feeling like a skulking criminal, just because I want to sleep outside without leaving any trace, made me sad. I now have all the more appreciation for the free camping rights of Scandinavia and Finland.

The air was always covered in a haze. At first I thought it was just fog, but even on a sunny day I couldn't see far into the horizon. There was a smoky smell. I wasn't sure if pollution in Germany really is so visibly bad, or whether this was a remnant of the forest fires in Spain a month or two before.

It didn't look like fog to me.
This pier stretched over 100 meters into the sea.

Through the pedals I started to feel a slight vibration that suggested something might be wrong. The next day it got bad enough to hear, as a slight clicking sound, which soon turned into a horrible metallic grinding. The ball bearings in my bottom bracket were done for. Not the kind of thing you want to happen when pushing hard into headwind. I got off to walk the bike, just in case pedalling would cause wider damage.

Near Husum I found a camping ground for the night. The next day I continued to the city to visit a bike shop. The first place I went to said I'd have to replace the entire bottom bracket, the crankset, front cogs, and probably the chain. Right. Luckily in the second shop the mechanic was happy to fix only what was actually broken, and didn't take long to swap the ball bearings.

I also took the time to thoroughly clean the entire drivetrain: cogs, chain, and cassette. I even took apart the small pulley wheels to get every bit of grime out and oiled anything that needed it. The operation made me feel better and the bike was running smoothly again.

In bad winds, every little bit helps.

At a tourist information office I was given strict orders to not miss the Westerheversand lighthouse. And who am I to disobey a direct mandate? I cycled there to find an almost alien landscape of grassy flatness, with a tall 100-year-old lighthouse sticking out in the middle. It was only a few hundred metres from the sea, but without higher ground, you couldn’t see all the way to the water.

It does look unnecessarily phallic.

While taking photographs at sunset, I met a couple local girls who turned out to be volunteer workers at the national park. They offered me some space to camp by their hut, right underneath the lighthouse! I’d never experienced a campsite like this before, so it was quite a special treat. I took whatever photos I could, before the rain and thunder chased me into my tent.

In the morning I was invited for breakfast. One of the girls, Annika, said that she had gone touring in Europe with some friends and been helped by strangers so much that now she wanted to pay some of it forward. I know that feeling well. After this trip is over, I’m going to have to work very hard to give back even a fraction of the help I’ve received.

I could never witness anything like this back home.
 

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Vadehavet National Park

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Vadehavet National Park

All of Denmark is pretty flat, but especially the west side. It was almost eerie to not see any hills or elevation. Just perfectly level farmland, far into the distance. The only things blocking the view were buildings and occasional trees. And lots of massive wind turbines, which provide almost half of Denmark’s energy.

I’d felt a slight headache all day, and when I reached the shore of the Vadehavet National Park, it got worse. Suddenly I felt completely out of it and was barely able to pitch my tent on some grass by the sea. Skipping all my usual evening routines, I went straight to bed to sleep it off. This kind of thing seems to happen to me a couple times a year. Headache accompanied by nausea, and for the rest of the day I can’t function at all. Some kind of ‘mangraine', I suppose.

I love wind power in theory, but that constant wooshing sound can get a little annoying.
Is flat.

The next day I felt fine again. I backtracked a couple kilometres to visit the nearby Nature Centre, but it would’ve cost 14€ just to get in the building. That’s an unreasonable price tag for information that ought to be free. I dried my tent and clothes in the sun outside while muttering about how Finnish national parks are better.

Vadehavet (or the Wadden Sea) is a huge national park and another UNESCO World Heritage site. It spans 10000km2 off the coasts of Denmark and Germany. I assumed (probably incorrectly) that the name means something like “The Wading Sea”, because it’s so shallow that you could walk into it for miles, especially during low tide. Even the sea was flat here.

I was about to continue towards Germany, when an older gentleman suggested I visit the island of Mandø. It was connected to the mainland by five kilometres of rocky road, which was inaccessible every 12 hours or so, because it got submerged during high tide! This sounded like a fun place to visit. At the start of the road there were warning signs saying “Tide Race” and “No crossing without knowledge of the tides”. The old man had said it was several hours until the water would rise. I googled to double check, and then crossed the sea like some bicycle touring Moses.

This road looks fine for cycling!
This sight would become all too familiar soon enough.

Mandø was surrounded by a three-meter tall dike, a sloping seawall, covered in grass. It kept the water away during storms and also provided grazing ground for a lot of sheep. The mainland had the same kind of dike. (And it continued very, very far, as I would later find out.)

The island was a few kilometres across, with some farms, houses, summer cabins, and a small village centre. There was a camping ground, a shop, a couple restaurants and a very nice-looking windmill. I figured I’d stay at least until the next low tide. I showered at the campsite, took some photos, ate dinner, and chatted with a couple bird spotters. There were many different migratory birds in the nature reserve and subsequently also many enthusiastic people with binoculars and telescopes.

There's nothing quite like a sunset by the sea.

When the stars came out I returned to the windmill. The village had quieted down. I took a few still photos and then set a time-lapse of the scene below. This gave me an hour and a half to lie down and look at the stars while waiting for the camera. I really enjoy these moments of doing nothing while the camera’s shutter clicks away, recording movement where I see stillness.

I’ve been hooked on time-lapse since the first clip I ever shot, three years ago in Finland. It was the second week of my photography studies at the Kuusamo College, and I had a new camera with a timer to play with. The northern lights were expected to appear, and I had recently moved there from South Finland so had never seen them before. I cycled out at night to a lake by a forest, and waited until there was a hint of green in the sky.

I set the tripod and shot a sequence over something like half an hour, with stars and auroras reflecting off the water. Even now I remember thinking how cool it was, and I couldn’t wait to see the video. Of course it was out of focus, and unstable because I kept touching the camera's buttons. I even composed the shot vertically, which really shows how clueless I was.

But I loved it, and kept doing it. And here I am now, traveling the world and shooting time-lapses semi-professionally.

Funny how one night can change the course of your whole life.

I got lucky and there were no cars with headlights ruining the 90-minute shot.
 

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