Wednesday, 7 October 2009

We made it in the end...

Ok, there wasn't much cycling involved and we are three months late but we have finally made it to Istanbul. The architecture is astonishing and the people are very kind - especially considering we only know a couple of words of Turkish. Interestingly, despite all of the reports, we have had no hassle in the bazaars although perhaps this is because Steve looks so mean/ grumpy with his new beard. Our hotel is 400 metres from the site of the anti IMF and World Bank protests but our parents will be pleased to read that we managed to sleep through the tear gas, water cannon attacks and baton charges.

It is a little sad that we didn't get here as planned - cycling here would certainly have made for a very cool expedition. Things we must do differently on our next trip include:
  • Take heed of weather reports - it wasn't much fun cycling in torrential rain/hail/snow in Spain.
  • Do some training before we leave - lots of Christmas celebrations followed by a month in Asia wasn't the best preparation for a cycling trip.
  • Plan a route that takes into consideration our limitations - Steve seemed sure that we could cross the Pyrenees in winter with 20 kgs of luggage. Sadly we barely made it over the Surrey hills mountains.
Positives to take away from the trip include:
  • Our cast iron stomachs - no food poisoning despite eating at as many local restaurants/ street stalls as we could find.
  • Our ability to stay (reasonably) positive when faced with 10 inches of snow/sore knees/extortionate prices in Costa Rica.
  • Our abundance of friends and relatives who supported us throughout the trip - every email, skype call and comment on the blog cheered us up and kept us going. Special thanks to those in Pelaw and Dallas who took us in and nurtured our weary souls when we needed it most.
Despite everything that happened, we have had a fun and eventful 10 months - it has certainly been a big improvement on 2008. The trip to Asia was probably the high point - the food, sights, people and weather were all fantastic. We would definitely recommend a trip to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

I don't know when/ where our next expedition will take us although we have just received news of the London to Cape Town rally in 2011... so stay tuned.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Quick update, some photos + a return date

Since the last post we have done an awful lot of driving and seen a lot of cool things. Nothing hugely interesting or disastrous has happened however and so none of it seemed particularly bloggable. So, what follows is a quick update with photos and comments where appropriate.

Where are we now and when are we coming home?

We're currently hanging out in balmy Palm Springs at a tennis / sports resort. We'll stay here for the next few days and then fly home from LA on Monday arriving Tuesday 6th May. Initial plans include getting fit(tish), never eating burgers/pizza again and finding a couple of soul-nourishing jobs.

Where have we been and what have we been doing
In short we've driven around 5000 miles in our (disastrous/white/American) rental car and have visited:
  • Monument valley
  • The Coachella music and arts festival
  • Death valley
  • Mammoth lakes
  • Bodie - a really cool ghost town
  • Lake Tahoe
  • Muir woods
  • Sausalito
  • San Francisco - hanging out with old friends
  • Napa valley- drinking wine and eating too much
  • The Pacific highway to Santa Barbara
Highlights and photos

Monument valley

Coachella was awesome. 3 days of lying around in 100 degree heat listening to music and drinking lemonade slush puppies. The best bits were:
  • Paul McCartney's 2.5 hour set which included lots of Wings / Beatles songs
  • Morrissey playing 'How soon is now' (Other than that he was grumpy and complained about the smell of burning animal flesh.)
  • The Cure set - although Robert Smith doesn't seem to go in for much in the way of audience interaction
  • The Killers, Paul Weller, Franz Ferdinand and a scottish guy called Paolo Nutini who was very summer-y.
Paul Weller and special guest Jonny Marr
  • Some very cool art installations

Other photos

Reena at Death Valley

Bodie - ghost gold mining town

Bodie interior

Reena hugs a tree in Muir Woods

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Freezing in Arizona

Well we've now seen snow in each month of our trip. Freak snowfall in London in February, knee-deep snowdrifts in Spain in March and now, bizarrely, snow in Arizona in April. I'm starting to think that we should offer our services to ski resorts. We are currently in Flagstaff, Arizona and the outside temperature is -1 degree C. All of the clothes that we have with us are designed to keep us cool in hot and humid climes and are doing very little at to keep us particularly warm. The issue is exacerbated to some degree by the fact that the, less than luxurious, Highland Motel in Flagstaff is not equipped with a particularly effective heating system. It also happens to be on the side of a 24 hour railroad and so we are not anticipating getting a great deal of sleep this evening. Reena is currently huddled under a duvet muttering that she will be choosing tomorrow night's hotel..

The US itinerary to date: Dallas -> LA -> Las Vegas -> Grand Canyon -> Flagstaff.

Dallas was a welcome break from sightseeing. We hung out with friends who spoilt us with home cooked food, laundry facilities and comfy sofas. They also had a couple of large, friendly dogs who liked to snuggle up with Reena and, for some reason, lick my arms a lot first thing in the morning. (I think I use more soap than she does).


Texas is quite a religious place with huge churches and overly large 'Christian Inspiration' sections in bookstores. Other than that, it's very big, everybody drives everywhere and they have cool things like drive-through ATMs and drive-through liquor stores (apart from in the semi-dry religious areas of the town). As to what we actually got up to: A couple of hours were spent trying to solve the JFK assassination mystery with Reena on the grassy knoll, me in the school book depository and our friends driving their open-topped limo around the block repeatedly. I also rode a mechanical bull with limited success and a man with a cowboy hat played the song below when he heard that we were from London.

After Texas we flew to LA - very cool and slightly soulless at the same time. It's no surprise that the vampire series Angel is based there. I can't imagine that anyone would notice if their neighbour was eaten/ turned to the dark side.

View from our hotel room

We then drove to Las Vegas where we visited various glitzy casinos and lost $27 gambling. In our first attempt, I put $7 in a slot machine and, experiencing absolutely no fun at all, the machine ate the money. Mmm. The next night we spoke to a very nice lady who showed us how to play blackjack at one of the tables. Five minutes later we had lost a further $20 but somehow we didn't feel so bad about it as the lady was so nice and, for a second, I thought we were going to win something. The moral of all of this appears to be that gambling is tricky and if you're going to lose money it's best to find a nice lady to help you.

We left Vegas this morning and drove to the Hoover Dam (very big with art deco toilets) and on to the Grand Canyon. Other than the fact that the canyon was enormous, the surprising thing was the temperature. The southern rim of the canyon is 8000ft above sea level and, in April at least, is extremely cold. We parked the car, had a quick look at the canyon and then as the snowfall became heavier we decided to drive to equally freezing Flagstaff.

That's it for now. You are completely up to date. There will be a quiz on the contents of this blog when we return in May.


Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Costa Rica update

Costa Rica is a beautiful country full of lush green rainforests, dramatic waterfalls and an incredible variety of birds and animals. Unfortunately it is also super expensive and overrun with American tourists. You can see why CR is the perfect place for US tourists:
  • It is a beautiful country full of lush green rainforests, etc. etc. (as previously mentioned)
  • The culture is almost exactly the same as that of the US - so not too scary but slightly exotic feeling
  • There's no need to change currency or speak another language (for the most part anyway)
  • Most restaurants have a good selection of burgers, steaks and pasta
  • Each hotel has a(n identical?) menu of tours ad excursions - rain forest walk, zip line, coffee tour and butterfly farm visit etc. The tours are relatively expensive ($80 per person typically) but you can sign up for a few of them and fill up a short vacation with fun things to do.
Unfortunately, all of this leaves Costa Rica feeling like a very large, tropical version of Disneyland (staffed only with Hispanic staff). Tourism was so slick and controlled that there wasn't much left that could be done independently, e.g. a non-descript walk to a waterfall would often have a ticket kiosk at the start of the trail or would be marked as closed unless followed as part of a guided tour. So, beautiful, yes, but also soulless, commericalised and disastrous value for money.

So, what did we do in our week in CR:

Corcovado National Park
Our first stop was Corcovado National Park in the south of the country. This is the most remote rainforest in Costa Rica and according to National Geographic, one of the most biologically intense places in the world. As I mentioned in the previous post, it was something of an arduous journey to get there and so we were a little surprised to find that the main town (Bahia Drake) had a number of luxury resorts dotted around the bay. A little more research revealed the presence of a (newly built?) airstrip 5kms away that allowed 20 minute flights to the capital San Jose. Oh well, at least we would have an easier journey on the way back!

The area around the bay was stunning with primary rainforest, jade green seas and dark grey beaches. The resorts were for the most part hidden as the trees of the rainforest grew right down to the water's edge and so the impression was that of a remote bay with a few huts on the shore. We took a couple of tours here - one further into the national park to see some wild animals and a snorkelling trip. The snorkeling was pretty good - we saw stingrays, sharks and puffer fish for example, but it was the guided national park trip that was the real highlight.

Walking through a remote part of the forest we saw three types of monkeys (howler, squirrel, spider) , a herd of very smelly wild boars, a toucan, a couple of small crocodiles lying in the mud and, after much hunting around, a 300lb baby tapir. It was very cool to be so close to the animals.


The other cool thing we saw was the Volcano Arenal in the centre of the country. We stayed in the swoofy hotel nearest the volcano and had a room with floor to ceiling uninterrupted views of the peak. We heard and saw a small eruption in the afternoon. At night it was pretty cloudy so although we could hear eruptions and bubbling lava from our balcony the most we saw was a few lava rocks rolling down the mountain. It was an awesome experience made even better with the abundant wildlife off the balcony including fireflies, hummingbirds and toucans.

Plans for the next few weeks

As you may have noticed (dear reader) we are not keen on sticking to any one plan for very long and so we are now in Dallas (visiting friends and the Ewings) and are planning to spend the next month in the US. We'll fly from Dallas to LA, head to the Coachella music festival to see the Orb, the Cure, the Killers... and drive generally north visiting friends, taking some tennis lessons, and spending a few days in a yoga retreat. Once we get to Vancouver we'll stop and then either head directly back to London or fly back to Guatemala for more rainforest-based entertainment. Stay tuned - you never know we may be in China next time we write...

Tuesday, 31 March 2009


I knew two things about Panama before we arrived:

1. Van Halen have a song called "Panama"
2. There is a canal in Panama.

The Van Halen song isn't that great - It goes "Panama... Panama-ah". To be fair, they get top marks for a very focussed chorus but when you consider how good the first Van Halen album was then it's a big step down in quality as far as I'm concerned. The US army weren't quite as fussy apparently and played the song repeatedly at high volumes in order to torture General Noriega as he hid in the Vatican embassy in Panama city.

As for the canal:
Dan Cohen, old friend and mentor, explained to me once that A MAN A PLAN A CANAL PANAMA is palindromic. This was quite an interesting chat for me and Dan; usually we spent lunchtimes discussing whether there is any need for 3/4 length trousers, the benefits of crossing the road diagonally and Dan's theory that it only makes sense to read popular books at least 2 years after everyone else has read them.

Another UBS colleague told me that of all the places in the world, he would most like to see the Panama Canal before he dies. His wife and kids thought he was a bit batty as I recall and I have to say that I was on their side at the time. Having visited the canal - or more specifically one of its three big locks - I think he might have a point. 77km long, it took 34 years and 27,500 lives to carve a path through the rainforest and connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. All very impressive and now they are expanding it to take even larger ships.

Other than visiting the canal, we hung around in Panama city for a couple of days - A very busy city with quite a cool dillapadated old town but otherwise not hugely interesting. We then took a bus to the mountain town of Boquete - ranked as the fourth best place on the planet for a cheap retirement by the US retirement magazine: "Departure Lounge". Boquete is a mediumly-charming town set amongst beautiful mountains covered in cloud forest and coffee plantations. The principal attractions for visitors are hiking, coffee plantation tours, cheap beer and American junk food. Mrs R and I achieved 2,3 and 4 but were dissuaded from our inaugral hiking expedition by 2000 inches of rain falling in 12 hours. Apparently the rainy season has come early to Panama this year.

Spooky castle, Boquete

We are now in very hot and super expensive Costa Rica. After 4 buses and a taxi we have not quite reached our target destination and so are hanging out in a sleepy town called Sierpe waiting for tomorrow morning's boat to take us to the rainforest town of Bahia Drake. Fingers-crossed for lots of wild animals and not too many mosquito bites when we get there.

That's it for now.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Possibly the least successful cycle trip ever

In the end it was my right knee that gave out. Reena's body seemed to adapt to the stresses and strains of cycle touring whereas mine fell apart progressively. After a few enjoyable days of cycling towards Seville the pain in my knee became pretty intense. We took some time out in Burgos hoping that it would get better but it was still just as sore a few days later. And so, with boredom thresholds set, as ever, to 'minimum' we decided to come home and come up with Plan G.

After much deliberation plan G involves flying to Central America and travelling around with a backpack for a couple of months. The Asia trip was unexpectedly enjoyable and so the hope is that, despite our painfully bad grasp of Spanish, we'll have fun travelling slowly north from Panama to Guatemala taking in the pyramids, beaches, jungles on the way. We fly out on Tuesday 24th March and will be back at the end of May. If any of you have any top travel tips then please let us know as (yet again) we are completely unprepared for this trip.

We have received requests (thanks mum) to keep the blog going. However we will not be upset if any of you decide that you want to unsubscribe as a trip around Central America isn't quite the same expedition as cycling to Istanbul.

More soon...

Sunday, 8 March 2009

In summary: Things have not been going particularly well although they now appear to be improving.

Day 1: Nightmare tour of the Surrey hills – 80km with 1300m of climbing – torrential rain and howling winds for the last 1/3 of the ride.
Day 2: Sore knees all round – limped to the ferry but should really have had a day off
Day 3: At sea with the vomiting proletariat.
Day 4: Bilbao – torrential rain, sore knees, Guggenheim museum, no obvious viable route from the city, debates about where we should go (or if we should fly home).
Day 5: ** Cheating ** Taxi over the mountains in a southerly direction
Day 6: ½ day cycling in the sun and on a sensible mountain road in the general direction of Seville. (Not sure how we’ll get to Istanbul at present).

The long version:

South to Portsmouth

Our first day was almost enough to make us give up and head back to Wimbledon. The ride started well enough: it was sunny and 10 degrees and so we decided to take the scenic route to Fernhurst – 600m of climbing and 75km in total according to As far as I could remember we had one big hill in the whole route and that was it – not entirely true as it turned out. The first 30km were lovely – very narrow, traffic free country roads lined with autumn-coloured trees (weirdly). After 50km and a considerable amount of climbing we were both a feeling pretty unhappy however:
  • It was significantly more hilly than it was supposed to be – with regular long and very steep uphill sections.
  • Having not cycled for a few months (bad weather/Christmas /Barcelona/far east trip) it was a bit of a shock to the system – sore knees, sore back, sore bum
  • Adding 20kg of luggage to a light road bike makes it much harder to climb hills – especially as you need to maintain a certain speed to stay upright.
With 15km to go it was cold, getting dark and the weather had deteriorated to strong winds and heavy rain. We were also completely exhausted but with no other options to hand we had little choice except to continue to the pub that we had booked for the night. Eventually, after a very fast downhill we arrived at the (delightful) Kings Arms in Fernhust – soaking wet, desperately tired and extremely cold. We changed, ate some food and collapsed into bed at 20:30. When I checked the GPS the next day it said we had climbed 1350m over the 80km. That explained a quite lot.

Day 2 should have been an easy day however Reena’s left knee was very sore and so we limped to Portsmouth.

The boat to Bilbao with the proletariat

The Pride of Bilbao is an enormous ferry with a casino, cinemas, swimming pool and numerous restaurants. In my wisdom I had gone a bit wild and booked the most expensive cabin available. This turned out to be a masterstroke given the dreadful weather we experienced over the 36 hour trip.

With the exception of another cycle tourist, the people on the ship appeared to be from one of two categories:
  1. Mobile home enthusiasts (typically seen clutching a copy of MMM magazine and debating the pros and cons of rear-lounge vs mid-lounge layouts)
  2. Members of the lower orders who had, incredibly, taken the 72 hour round trip solely to buy cheap cigarettes (£3 for a box of 20 in case any of you are interested).

Avoiding the delights of bingo with the masses we went to bed early on the first night only to wake at 4am with the boat lurching violently in heavy seas. This was both incredibly nauseating and a tad dangerous as it wasn’t possible to stand up without crashing into a wall or being hit by something flying around the cabin.

At 09:30 I (bravely) went for a walk to find: the hairdressers were closed (I remain shaggy-haired Steve for a bit longer), two men with tattoos drinking pints of lager and another two men sitting looking out to sea – one of whom was throwing up rather violently into a Tesco’s carrier bag. Other than that the decks were pretty much empty as sensible passengers stayed in their cabins for much of the trip.

After 36 hours of this we arrived in Bilbao.
Bilbao and South
As soon as we had cycled from the ferry and onto dry land the heavens opened – torrential hail/rain. The passport guy said it was a really bad time to be cycling in Northern Spain – we could go south, he said, but it wouldn’t get any better for a long time. Hmm... it wasn’t sounding entirely promising.

After a quick trip to the Guggenheim it was apparent that:
  • Bilbao isn’t a hugely interesting city
  • The weather was dire and not forecast to improve in the near future (although it had been 17 degrees and sunny last week – typical).
  • All routes out of Bilbao involve very steep gradients – not the sort of thing that two unfit cycle tourists with bad knees should be attempting.

So... cycling in almost any direction would hurt Reena’s knee. Going North would get us to Istanbul but the weather would still suck. If we headed South to Seville the weather would be better at least – but wouldn’t get us where we wanted to go.

After much deliberation we decided to cycle to Seville, however with the rain pouring down we (shamefully) arranged a cab to take us south over the mountains to Trespadarmes.
Cycling from Trespadarmes was really excellent – the weather improved (probably coincidentally) and the roads were challenging but not ridiculously steep. We don’t have a plan at the moment as to how (or if) we’ll get to Istanbul but at least we’re a bit happier than we were and are enjoying the cycling. I guess there’s always the North Africa route although I might have to sell Reena and her bike for a camel in Tangiers and go it alone.

That’s all for now. Take care. S&R