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germany

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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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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