The year of living flexibly - while bicycling through Africa

An American couple meets generous vendors and grueling terrain - andexperience the world as few travelers do.

Julie and I stopped on the side of the one-lane dirt road to fix a flat tire. Before long, an enthusiastic Turkish truck driver pulled over to make sure we were OK. Seeing we were repairing a bike, he offered to put us and our bicycles in the back of his truck and take us to wherever we needed to go.

These sorts of experiences - both the adventure and challenge of cycling and also the human interaction - are a couple of the reasons that we decided to travel through Turkey, the Middle East, and Africa by bicycle. My wife and I have traveled before in other parts of the world by bus and train and thought that bicycles could offer perhaps a more rewarding experience.

From our home in Boulder, Colo., we put together a flexible plan.

Fly to Istanbul, cycle through Turkey, Syria, and Jordan and then south to Africa. The plan had to be flexible because there were so many unknowns. How far would we cycle in a month? Could we keep it going for weeks at a time? And there were political considerations. Which countries would we be able to get visas for, and in which countries would it be safe for slow, overland travel? Time would help answer these questions. For now, we have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the Turks.

To say that Turkish hospitality is tremendous is perhaps a clich, but their friendliness brightened our spirits on difficult days. On a hot, hungry afternoon, we stopped at a small roadside vegetable stand and picked out some tomatoes. Apparently I did not take enough, because the man gave me more tomatoes and a bunch of peppers; then he smiled and waved me off, while refusing to take any money. In hazelnut-growing areas, we could barely stop to rest before someone would give us freshly picked hazelnuts.

Traveling by bicycle has forced us to stop many places that we would fly right by in a bus or a car. Many of our encounters have been with people who do not see foreigners every day - especially crazy ones on bicycles. So far people have only tried to make us feel welcome.

Crossing from Turkey to Syria

The international frontier is always a landmark for travelers. For cyclists, even more so. When we arrived in Syria, after nearly seven weeks of pedaling through Turkey, we felt that we were finally getting somewhere. It is quite amazing the changes that occur by crossing these seemingly arbitrary lines on a map. Indeed, watching the olive groves on the side of the road, we could not tell where one country started and the other ended, yet crossing from Turkey to Syria, just south of the Turkish town of Kilis, the changes were instantly evident.

We said goodbye to Turkey's Latin alphabet and the Turkish language in which we had been able to communicate quite effectively. In Syria, we were faced with the challenge of Arabic.

On the Turkish side, the border police efficiently checked our papers and stamped our passports. In Syria, we had to wake each officer whose help we needed. One did not even get out of bed to check our passports.

Our first day in Syria, on the outskirts of Aleppo, we were flagged down by the driver of an ice-cream truck. He got out, said hello, gave us two ice creams, welcomed us to Aleppo and Syria, and sped off.

The prime attraction in the country is the myriad of archaeological sites. In Aleppo, I was taken back a thousand years or more to the days of the Silk Road caravans as I wander into the area of the souqs, the city's covered markets.

I am overwhelmed by the wonderful smell of the mounds of spices. Sunlight breaks through the covered market in a few places, lighting up the dust and smoke. Arab men in long robes and red-and-white headscarves secured with a black cord stroll by shops selling just that: the traditional outfits of Arab men. Two black figures flow by. With black veils over their faces, not a square inch of skin is showing. Because of their chadors, the long, black gowns favored by more traditional Muslim women, I cannot even see the feet of these women as they float by.

Jordan and the King's Highway

Cycling might not be the best way to visit Jordan. Most travelers take tour buses along the King's Highway, which is the obvious route for cyclists also. From Amman, the capital in the north, the King's Highway runs south to Aqaba, Jordan's only port, at the southern tip of the country. Along the way, it provides easy access to Jordan's main attractions: the churches of Maduba, the castles of Kerak and Shoubak, and Petra, the world-famous archaeological site. The King's Highway twists and turns as it follows the backbone of the mountains to the east of the Jordan Valley. The range is broken by a number of deep canyons that intermittently carry water west to the Dead Sea.

The deepest of these gorges and the first as we traveled south from Amman is the Wadi al-Mujib. The tour buses stop at the breathtaking viewpoint near the top of the gorge, and as we struggled up the 1,000-meter (1/2 mile) climb to get back out the other side, the air-conditioned buses with their comfortable, reclining seats looked pretty enticing.

We made it to the top, and were rewarded with an experience that is not possible if traveling in a large group. We were invited to stay at a mosque in the small village of Ariha, just south of the Wadi al-Mujib. The imam of the mosque lived with his wife and three kids in the quarters below the mosque. We experienced firsthand the male-female segregation that is still common in religiously conservative Muslim households. My wife, Julie, was given a headscarf to complete her modest outfit and spent time with the veiled women in the house. When no men were in the house, the women removed their veils and revealed wide, welcoming smiles.

In the mosque upstairs, I attended the sunset prayer, led by our host, the imam. Afterward we talked about Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and mutually came to a peaceful solution to the problems emanating from the differences in these faiths. If diplomacy could be so easy!

The premier destination for all tour buses in Jordan is Petra. Indeed Petra was our destination, too, but south of Ariha we would have been much happier in those tour buses. Kids welcomed us into various towns by throwing stones or sticks at us; they spit on us and physically attacked us with their fists. We questioned Jordanian adults, and they wrote it off as undisciplined kids.

We pushed on to Petra and joined the tour-bus crowds to visit the ancient capital of the Nabateans. No words can do justice to the beauty and grandeur of the rose-red city of the desert.

Into Egypt

Our time in Egypt felt like a vacation from life on the road in Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.

First stop in Egypt was the Sinai peninsula. The daily ferry from Aqaba, Jordan, dropped us in the port of Nuweiba from where we had a short ride south to the small seaside village of Tarabin. The Sinai is justifiably world famous for its underwater treasures. Every day for a week, I rented a mask and snorkel and explored the coral reef just off shore.

The eastern shore of the Sinai peninsula from the Israeli border to Sharm el-Sheik on the southern tip is being built up to attract ever-more tourists. The old hippy hangouts like Dahab are moving toward five stars, and Tarabin, a sleepy fishing village a few years ago, must have a row of 30 budget hotels.

When we finally pulled ourselves away from this bit of paradise, we found that the cycling in the Sinai was some of the best of the trip.

There are few towns on this road across the Sinai so we carried extra water and food. The riding was quite easy. We were continually impressed by the beautiful desert scenery.

I was ecstatic when three days later I got my first view of Africa across the Suez Canal. For vehicles, there is a tunnel under the canal, but it is crazy to try to bicycle in a tunnel. So after pedaling 3,500 kilometers (about 2,200 miles), we found ourselves crossing into Africa in the back of a pickup.

A stop in Suez

Traveling south by road from Egypt is difficult: the border with Sudan is often closed and getting a visa for that country is problematic. Even if we had managed to get in, the Nubian Desert is not a place for bicycles, and Sudan's southern borders with Ethiopia and Eritrea are closed, so we found ourselves in Suez waiting for a yacht traveling south on the Red Sea.

The stop gave us comfort in the routine. For lunch we visited our friendly falafel shop. There they grind cooked garbanzo beans and some vegetables to make a kelly-green paste, which is deep fried and stuffed inside a small pita bread. The place was usually crowded - it seemed that the huge electric grinder was going 24 hours a day. The owner was happy to see us return and added mashed potato or fried eggplant to our falafel to spice it up.

In the evening when it was dark we walked down the main street, and the bread baker had his industrial-size oven fired up. At that time of year, the sauna temperature felt good for a few minutes but must be unbearable all summer. The white bread is long and skinny: a cross between a breadstick and a hot-dog bun.

Our days in Suez often ended with a trip to one of the numerous kushari restaurants. Kushari is popular throughout Egypt. It is cheap, nutritious, and filling. In a bowl the server combines rice, pasta, small lentils, garbanzo beans, fried onions, and a tomato-based sauce. A kushari restaurant only serves kushari. The only choice to make is small, medium, or large.

Bumps in Ethiopia

We loved the scenery in Ethiopia; we hated the roads that took us there. We had been warned about road surface in Ethiopia: "from asphalt to something akin to a river bed, but most roads fall somewhere in between." One day the track actually descended into a river bed and stayed there for 10 kilometers (6 miles)! Luckily there wasn't too much water.

The desperate poverty of Ethiopia was overwhelming. Few people wore shoes. Electricity was a luxury; running water almost unheard of. Clothes were literally rags and patches.

There are no TVs and no entertainment, but we provided our own: bicycle repair. Four hours of riding for each hour of maintenance/repair may have been our average. Unwillingly, we also provided entertainment for the villagers. We were almost constantly surrounded.

The food was phenomenal. For a vegetarian, the cuisine rivals India's as the best I can think of. There was injera, the spongy pancake bread; shiro wat - spicy red lentils; alicha wat - mild yellow lentils, potatoes, spinach, and beets. Everyone eats off the same dish, and of course we never saw any silverware.

These delicious meals were consistently available everywhere we went. The generosity is amazing. Ethiopians invited us to dinner or drinks multiple times and never allowed us to pay for anything.

In a month of traveling, we managed to part with less than $300, and we usually searched for the fanciest hotel in town. There was literally nothing to buy. I couldn't decide if I loved it or hated it.

On to Kenya

Kenya was not such a difficult place to sort out. I loved it. The riding was great. People are warm, not overwhelming. Nairobi felt like the first world: cinemas, bicycle shops, Internet cafes, Indian restaurants. Consumer culture - I felt at home.

Food, though - and it always comes back to food - was a nightmare outside of Nairobi. The fruit was an exception: I don't think I've ever had such juicy pineapples, mangos, passion fruit, papayas, granadillas, bananas. When the alternative is goat stew, one can survive on fruit for quite some time.

Kenya's varied ecosystems provided vastly differing panoramas: stark desert lands; lush tropical areas full of papaya, mango, and banana trees; the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Kenya on the equator; and most typically the rolling savannah dotted with acacia trees and teeming with wildlife.

In Kenya, we also saw the Masai tribal people laden with colorful jewelry. They would stand majestically by the road with a spear in one hand and smile and wave at us.

Colonialism has left its mark on Kenya. English is widely spoken. I was not surprised to find unappealing food. Repeatedly, before we visited Africa, people had warned me of the poor food. Sure enough, in Kenya our choice was limited to boiled cabbage and goat stew.

Kenya deservedly attracts a large number of tourists. After seven months of cycling, I found that cycling is an advantageous means of visiting countries that attract lots of tourists. Bicycles are a great conversation starter. We have access to out-of-the-way places and never complain of "too many tourists."

We visited two protected areas, Masai Mara in Kenya and Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. Masai Mara is an extension of the Serengeti in Tanzania. Game drives are done by vehicle, which takes away some of the "wildness." We made up for the lack of wild by tracking the mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains. Permits are difficult to get so Julie and I went separate days. Once it finally stopped raining, I was fortunate to see the whole group quite well in a clearing.

Since we didn't pedal through Uganda, we decided to paddle. The rapids on the stretch of the Nile below Owen Falls Dam are graded up to five. The river is graded high because of the tremendous volume of water, not because it's at all technical. It's not, and in fact there are few rocks. These waves are the biggest I've ever rafted.

Tanzania with the elephants

The main road from Nairobi to Arusha went right through Amboseli Game Reserve, but the only animals we saw were goats and cows, so we didn't worry about the road in Tanzania bisecting Mikumi National Park.

We were welcomed to the park by a huge sign: "Danger, wild animals." A group of baboons was crossing the road. Before long, we startled two elephants, who moved away. A wild elephant in the bush makes me feel pretty vulnerable. In the next few hours, we rode on to spot 50 or 60 elephants, also giraffes, warthogs, and impalas. The scariest was when a huge bull elephant with long tusks was on our left, not 20 meters (65 feet) away, staring at us. I didn't want to take my eyes off it because it could reach us in seconds. On our right were another two-dozen elephants slightly farther away. Cycle touring usually isn't such an adrenaline sport.

Finding food in Malawi

The challenge of Malawi has been food. Malawi has well-stocked markets, but it took us a few days to realize we wouldn't see one every day. Restaurants with food were even less frequent than these markets. We learned that if a restaurant offers any food, it should not be passed up. Countless times we walked into restaurants to be told they had only tea. Yet we were traveling through some of the most-fertile land we'd seen since Turkey.

Malawi to Mozambique

Crossing the border from Malawi to Mozambique was easy. It was hot down by the Zambezi River valley, but not nearly as hot as in Tanzania because it was so dry. In spite of land mines and bandits operating at night, riding in Mozambique was relaxing.

The bandits were not an idle threat. We came upon a dead man in the middle of the road. A group of mourners had gathered. We removed our helmets and walked through with a local cyclist. In Portuguese I understood that the victim had been walking alone the previous night and bandits killed him.

We had to ride some long days to avoid being out of towns after dark. Camping in the bush isn't wise anyway because of land mines. When we stopped to eat, we would move only a foot or two off the tarmac. I threw the guava and tangerine peels into the bush and Julie would jokingly say "BOOM!" as if I set off a land mine. One afternoon about 15 minutes later, the road on our side was lined with red signs: "PERIGO MINAS" ("Danger, mines").

Zimbabwe

Downtown Harare was clean, with wide streets, shiny glass buildings, orderly traffic, fancy shops, and takeout fast food. Unfortunately, the Zimbabwe dollar has collapsed in recent years and the economy is a wreck. Crime is soaring. I haven't witnessed so many bag snatchings since Bogota in 1992. We were [violently] mugged in broad daylight. Later, I went skydiving to put my mind on something else. It's too bad that skydiving is safer than walking the streets.

Great accommodations in Zambia

We cycled from Harare into Zambia and then southwest to Livingstone and Victoria Falls. The road was excellent. Accommodation in Zambia was the best of this trip. Vegetarian food is impossible so we've been cooking our own meals. Vic Falls was the rejuvenating experience we had hoped for.

Nonstop to Namibia

Namibia has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Distances between towns are long, and towns are tiny. Wild camping is illegal, but we camped in the bush every night except one. We were discovered three times, once by an elephant who wandered by our tent while I was cooking dinner. Camped in the Caprivi, a black farmer greeted us and said, "Since you're camped in my field, I wanted to make sure you had enough water." Further south, the white landowners have signs in their fences: "POACHERS AND BURGLARS: You will not be prosecuted but will be SHOT ON SIGHT."

We crossed the line from black to white Africa in northern Namibia. A fence runs east-west through the north of the country. The north is black communal and subsistence farming; no fences. Every inch of land south of the line is fenced in. (Except for Zimbabwe - which I dubbed "the land of electric fences" - and Namibia, we haven't seen fences in Africa).

* Three days before Windhoek, Namibia, Brian and Julie Keith passed 10,000 kilometers (about 6,000 miles) on the odometer. They will soon conclude their travels in Capetown, South Africa.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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