Dubai dreams…

26 10 2010

The too salty water licks the toes of the mighty plastic forest of skyscrapers that desperately huddle together on the edge of the Gulf. We have travelled long and hard to make it to this point, swerving our way across the planet to try to wiggle our way to Thailand but much has muddied the path – which looked so clear and easy on our blow up globe; Ethnic fighting in Osh upset our Stans route, the devastating floods washed away our road in Northern Pakistan, the subsequent fighting made the journey through southern Pakistan too dangerous and the visa too hard to get hold of….. and so here we are. In Dubai. Sitting in a friend of Liz’s flat (thank all the baby cheeses for St Laura the jolly without whom we would be in financial meltdown!) holding tight to a scrap of paper with a hastily written number on it – our last hope.  ‘Try and get a Dhow’ yet another voice advises ‘Michal Palin did it!’.. and so with moist patches of hope gathering in our hearts we head off to the Seaman’s Mission. A fine place to find a Captain!

‘Seaman’s ID’ the gruff security guard barks at us, eyeing us suspiciously… Liz shoots me a look, ‘do seamen have ID?’ her raised eyebrows venture … ‘I have a salt encrusted t-shirt’ I whisper ‘do you think that will help’, Liz delivers me a surreptitious thump before returning to Mr Gruff… ‘emm.. we are looking for a Captain .. well for passage to India.. we have bikes and .. em .. it’s for charity .. and em….’ she falters, this is beginning to sound like a bad episode of Pugwash.. ‘emm.. we thought here.. we might find someone, someone who could take us’. Mr Gruff rolls back on his heels for a moment, clearly weighing us up… he huffs out a final and decisive garlicky gruff and disappears into the majesty of his tiny security box to return an unfathomably long 10 mins later and presents us with our little scrap of hope. ‘Try this number… John might be able to help, he runs the mission’.

Liz keys in the number and waits. John is helpful but clear ‘it’s illegal. After 9-11 things have tightened up – you could get passage on a container ship but only from Europe, good luck’. And with that our final little sandcastle of hope melted away.  Conflict and natural disaster have forced us to follow the land option into countries we never thought we’d go to and onto shores we didn’t ever dream of landing on. But now we have to fly – to get to India, to carry on to Thailand we have to fly over the sea. And so we will. But what we will do is fly to the tip – to Trivandrum. We will fly to the very bottom on India, because from the bottom of India to Kathmandu is as far as from the border of Iran to Kathmandu .. so we will still be able to say we have travelled the overland distance from the UK to Thailand.  This compromise affords our sagging little hearts a slight pep. So now we face the challenge of boxing our bikes and praying the bikes can make the journey without sustaining any damage. And the even greater challenge of gearing up emotionally and physically ready to face Mighty Mother India!

Risky business – keeping safe in Iran

8 10 2010

‘We have a farm. Please, come and stay with us’ rumbles Makmood from the passenger seat of his crumbling, smog churning Paykan, ‘No argument!’  He is an old man, he has a bad back, he carries a stick, and his English is good. His wife is driving, she is wearing a short head scarf and light coloured manteau. She smiles.

It is dark.  We have been cycling all day through the desert, we had a puncture, we climbed a hill, and we haven’t found a decent camp site – the road is full of work teams – they sleep on the road at night.  We have noticed some watching us as we search for a pitch – their eyes hard to read.  We have been forced to cycle further and further to try and find a safe place to sleep. Finally we arrive at a small dusty town, we have heard that other cyclists have been able to camp by the police station, we ask the guards.  They say no.  That is when Makmood and Afareen reverse down the road to offer help.  Our options are limited. Trust is the best option we have.  They say that they live 7 km back up the hill. Liz looks like she might cry. Makmood decides we should leave our bikes with the police and go with them in their car. We do.

Assessing risk is a complicated business.  Who are these people whose car we are in? Where are they taking us as we allow ourselves to be driven off into the dark Iranian night? Can we trust the police to look after our bikes? Should we have camped? Why didn’t we? The truth is that there is no ‘safe’ option in these situations, there are only risk assessments. But we can hope and we can trust. It is easy to see how spirituality can be enhanced on these kinds of journeys… what fate to be ‘rescued’ at a moment of crisis, how biblical to ‘not be afraid’, how optimistic to believe in the ‘kindness of strangers’.  These things are easy to believe in when things go well. But what do they say about the times when things don’t? What we do is pull on safety indicators… he is old, she is dressed liberally (for an Iranian), the police know where we are, his English is good – it turns out he has lived in America for some years. She is driving. These are good indicators and are better providence than taking a risk on camping. Which we didn’t do.

As it turns out Makmood and Afareen owned an idyllic pomegranate and pistachio farm out in the rusty desert. They gave us their guest bungalow and invited us into their home to share stories and snippets of our lives.  They told us of Iran and the revolution, they told us about their qanat water supply system, they told us about the three year drought that devastated the crops, they told us about the clawing summers and the pinching winters. They told us they like to horse ride but that it is hard with Makmood’s bad back and the high cost of keeping stock. They told us about their concerns for their children and their hopes that they will be able to find jobs. And, as their little kitten was falling asleep on Catherine’s lap, and Catherine looked like she might follow it, they told us to go to bed. Which we did.   Safely.

According to the Tehran Times there have been 6 bomb blasts in the Pakistan city of Quetta this week alone.  The Pakistani authorities have closed one of the southern land borders.  Quetta is a key transit point for us in Pakistan. The British FO has been trying to support our trip, to keep it overland, but even with their support it may take up to 3 months to get a Pakistan visa. There was another blast in Karachi yesterday. Sometimes it can be hard to sniff out real risk from beneath the stench of our own fear and the waves of others – this time it isn’t. Pakistan is too great a risk. So. From here we head south to Bandar e Abbas to catch a boat to the UAE… from there… who knows how we will get to India!

Waiting and mass debating (Baku/Iran)

6 09 2010

‘Baku is expensive!  it’s the oil… their oil… not my oil’ ranted our rough shaven taxi driver Cahil.  His (by now 20 min long) monologue was as persistent and visceral as his driving; ‘It’s a republic in name only’ he spat as he shaved the corner off another bend, throwing us rattling across the back seat like unhinged nodding dogs; ‘the oil isn’t for us! (mumble mumble) I used to be a teacher now my wife is a teacher she earns $130 a month! Imagine… how can you live when prices are higher than Paris, or London?!’ He pauses only briefly to holler across to another taxi driver, it is becoming clear that he is not quite sure how to get us to our destination… ‘Do you know about the Armenians?’ he shouts back at us as he resumes his confidently urgent trajectory; ‘the world listens to them because they are Christian, everyone is afraid of Muslim, but the truth is that they won the war… the information war! They are everywhere, be careful, where there is a stone under it you will find an Armenian. No one helps the Azeri, no one knows about Azerbaijan, do they know Azerbaijan in UK?’ Struggling to know how to answer ‘…no…’ Liz ventures gingerly; ‘SO!’ he slams on his brakes triumphantly and swivels to look at us, ‘So! That is true. But now you must learn. Do not let fear win and you will tell your family and people will know.’ Unsure of the appropriate response we both nod sombrely, he is satisfied and abruptly returns to his wheel, ‘I used to be number three in Azerbaijan judo team. We are here.’ He indicates to the International School we have come to visit. We step into the blinding morning sun, blinking.

It’s true; we don’t know much about Azerbaijan. By “we” I’m including you. And by Azerbaijan maybe I mean anywhere and everywhere. There are always stories within stories, and perspectives that are more complicated than even the BBC would have us believe.

We have been battling with choices and prejudices and preconceptions for the last few weeks as we have been engaged in what has become, affectionately known as, The Great Iranian Mass Debate. As we can’t go in to Pakistan from the north because of the floods, we are waiting to see if we can get a visa to go through Iran and into India that way… so for anyone interested in our mass debate… dive on in! (PS – thanks for the Lonely Planet Iran mum!)

WARNING!!!! Iran – Axis of EVIL!

Iran is an evil state wanting to build nuclear bombs! Yes it is true that Iran is still in a standoff with much of the rest of the world over its nuclear programme and they have actively defied a number of Security Council resolutions calling for its halt. I can’t say if Iran is secretly trying to build a nuclear bomb, I can’t say if they are really going to bomb Israel if they manage it. And I don’t know if my not knowing is a reason not to go through a country… unless there was some evidence that they wanted to build and deploy a kill-all-cyclists-called-cath-and-liz bomb in the next few months!

It is dangerous if you are BRITISH! The British Foreign Office warns that following the 2009 elections the security forces will be more suspicious of British travellers, especially of those travelling on their own and looking… suspicious. There is a general terrorism threat and a kidnapping warning. Phew! This is better than the advice for Turkey which was a HIGH terrorism threat… I wonder what it would be for London? There is no warning against visiting Iran at this time.

They repress Women! After the 1979 Islamic revolution women in Iran lost many rights. While things are not perfect in Iran (as in most counties in the world) there is a real sense that ground is being won back by local women; with an estimated 60% of university applicants being women and the nationwide literacy rate for girls aged between 15 and 24 is up to 97%! Yes, if you are a women in Iran you have to cover up. There are a billion arguments either side of the hijab debate needless to say we really don’t have an issue with adhering to a countries mores while travelling through it – hopefully it will still be September by the time we get there and thus it should be coolish!

Women can’t cycle in IRAN! Iran has a women’s cycling team. Recently an Iranian cleric criticised women cyclists . Women can cycle, women do cycle, women have cycled but, yes, it is uncommon (two women trying to cycle to Thailand is relatively uncommon!) To find out more about the actual experiences of foreign women cycling in Iran we searched the internet for tales of recent experience – the first thing we came across was which has some good advice about how to hijab-up! I have already contacted my mum to send out a few spare buffs! We have spent many many hours riffling through the net, emailing people, talking to people and we came across quite a few recent stories of men travelling, mixed couples, women etc and the story of Ann Wilson, a 59 year old British women who cycled in Iran in 2009 and sums up research well – ‘The last 3 days have confirmed everything I had read about Iran from travellers who have actually been here. The beauty of the country cannot be described in mere words or pictures and the welcome and warmth that is extended to strangers like myself is greater than anywhere else I have seen on my journey.’ These testimonies, compounded by that of a middle aged French couple we recently met who were in Iran last month have really helped to ignite our curiosity about Iran and set our minds at rest about some of the fears that have been raised.

And so…..

Iran has risks. As do all the countries we are cycling through, including the one we started in. But we can’t escape divinely ordained assassination. Every day we cycle yards from insane screeching 20 tonne lorries, each night we get bitten by insects that may carry deadly diseases, two weeks ago we cycled across a new bridge because the old one got bombed by the Russians in 2008; in the past six weeks we have cycled past dead dogs, cows, cats, and sadly humans and we have been meters away from a truck tyre blow out. We fully appreciate and are in awe of the risks that we take. We do not take them lightly and we do not take them unadvisedly. We will continue to incline our ears to wisdom and our hearts to understanding, and we will work very hard to continue to stay alive and out of trouble!

Long live the Natashas! – Finding a bed in Georgia

20 08 2010

Follow me! The surly lorry driver motioned. The first ‘follow me’ from the sweat bellied taxi driver had landed us at the end of a peeling grey street, outside a block of grey flats; in the middle of precisely nowhere. By some bins. It was getting late and the streets were getting as edgy as we were.  It had been a long tough 120 km day; the last 70 of which had been on the eternal never-never hotel hunt. Samtredia was deemed by all we had met along the way to be the promised land of a hot shower and a bed – but so far Samtredia was yielding nothing. Follow me! He motioned again as he thrust his protesting transit van into first gear and screeched off down the road – we hurriedly cranked up our own protesting legs and strained after him. This was becoming a common occurrence – once we hit a town (or were leaving a town) instead of bothering to try and mime directions we have invariably found ourselves racing to keep up with our “guides” – in one instance this meant we found ourselves hurtling across lanes of traffic with a police escort! In Samtredia however the lorry driver spat us out at the train station. Had he misunderstood us? Was this his not very subtle way of explaining there was no hotel in Samtredia? What the heck were we going to do?! It was getting dark and late; we had been cycling for hours, and the day’s thick crust of salt, grit, and exhaustion was weighing heavy.

Samtredia station is run by a small gaggle of busty old Georgian women. Sharply cropped hair and scowling features poked and peered at us as they assessed our sorry state; the queues at the office window abandoned they gathered round to discuss our predicament and after much heated debate ‘Natasha, Natasha’ they concluded and motioned for us to sit.  So we sat. And we sat. For three hours we sat. Anytime we looked like we might make a run for it they firmly motioned for us to sit back down – ‘Natasha, Natasha’ they barked.

Eventually, on the cusp of us actioning our diversion and break out plan, in flurried Natasha! Suddenly the scowls cracked into humungous beams as the women fell into a soup of hugs and kisses; ascending voices and bellowed laughter peppered the air. The soup poured over to us and we were swept up in whirlwind Natasha who motioned us to follow her. Without a clue where we were going, we hurriedly stashed the remains of our stale bread and chocolate paste dinner and scurried after her.

It turns out that Natasha is the proprietor of a few traveller rooms above the station (either that or it was a homeless night shelter?!). Large rough rooms with multiple beds and equally as many rough looking men draped over them. Each eyeing us while dragging heavily on cigarettes, in various states of inebriation.  Natasha cracked a few sharp words at a tall toothless man and a younger one who quickly snapped out of their shock and jumped up to help us carry our bikes plus kit up the three flights of stairs. Natasha then showed us to a large unoccupied room which we could have to ourselves, with two sagging little beds, enough room to tango (Natasha demonstrated) and a large window that opened above the main station concourse. Liz was whisked off to help decode the passports while I was left in the room, with the bags … and the two men. There was a moment of uncertainty where they got a bit too close and were staring a bit too much so I hurriedly shepherded them to where Natasha had Liz trying to explain which country we were from  – was it the UK, England, Great Britain, Great Britain and Northern Ireland or… UK passports are actually very complicated! Yet another hour later we were finally able to shut the door at which point we collapsed into a heap of nervous laughter.  Not quite trusting the beds and being conscious of the growing hum of mosquitoes all around, we pulled out our thermarests and strung the mosquito net up from the wardrobe.  We leant the bikes against the door, dug out our ear plugs and collapsed.

After a sweaty, jarring night of not-much-sleep we woke early ready to creep out and make a speedy exit. The minute we creaked open the door Natasha was bustling around us – PHOTOS!  Her and her bonkers mucker, the station supervisor, pushed, pulled and squeezed us into a succession of poses which culminated in them straddling our bikes and eventually the bonkers station supervisor shooting off on mine! Bleary eyed passengers disembarking overnight trains were forced to hurtle themselves out of the way as she raced erratically around the station concourse.

Eventually we were released, piled high with home-grown cucumbers and shortbread, with promises of photos to be sent and thanks for the rescue hanging lightly in the crisp morning air. While not quite a hotel and not quite a good night’s sleep Georgia had come good and had ensured there was a Natasha there when we most needed one. Long live the Natashas!

Holed up in Hopa – decisions, decisions, decisions

15 08 2010

Described in the Lonely Planet as; ‘best appreciated on a grey day with a bad raki hangover.  It’ll probably feel like that anyway’. Hopa, a border town 30 km from Georgia, is where we find ourselves. Three days here have proved the Lonely Planet very wrong, it’s a friendly little place with a central workaday little tea garden, festooned with backgammon playing men perched on small wooden stools sheltering from the growing heat of the day, their games punctuated by slow sips of tea and occasional bouts of raucous laughter. The splendid Black Sea forms a constant back drop that is at once calming and weary. It is a plain place, a working place, an honest place.  Here we find ourselves, camped up in the compact rooms of Otel Cihan. Stopping to pause and think about our next move, in part because of the changing situation in Northern Pakistan,  but also to ensure that Catherine is located nice and close to a toilet!

You may have heard that there are some major floods occurring in north-west Pakistan at the moment. It looks bad. With bridges swept away, roads impassable, hundreds of thousands displaced – now really isn’t the time for us to be adding our fumbling foreign straw to that overloaded back! That, along with the ongoing situation in Krgysztan, has forced us to have a bit of a rethink about the route ahead.  The Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against ‘all but essential travel’ in both of these areas…

…So we have joined the little old men in the tea garden to take a long hard look at our blow up globe (splendid route planning tool!) to see what other options we might have…. and the large country between here and India happens to be Iran.  ‘But women can’t cycle in Iran’ I [Liz] chirped ‘we could travel through by bus’, ‘there’s no way we could get a visa and it wouldn’t be safe’… but we thought let’s do some research and see what we think – have any women cycled there?  What happened to them?, was it ok?  The more research we did, the more we dug, all we kept hearing were tales of fantastic hospitality, welcoming and friendly people, and what a great place to cycle through.  Admittedly most of those tales had come from mixed couples… but even so…

And maybe it is possible to get a visa for Iran after all; maybe they won’t automatically reject us just because we are British. Well then. Let’s give it a whirl! Because, quite frankly, there aren’t that many options left! So we have applied online …. I had a sleepless night worrying about the decision, was this a stupid thing to do, would we be putting ourselves in unnecessary danger, would it just be a constant worry the whole time we are there… I imagine all of these questions will continue to plague me throughout the journey… but with all the research and thought I feel more confident about how to be respectful enough of the local people, while also being able to stay on our bikes through Iran…. successful visa application pending…

A wheely serious dilemma

28 07 2010

UK to Thailand in 9 months – deciding to hack off the first section by train took some umming and arring. Was it cheating? If we don’t pedal every inch are we frauds etc .. well. No. Quite frankly. We have committed to travel as much overland as possible for ecological reasons (certainly not economic ones!!!!). I guess this also raises the question of success and to us I think success is HIV/AIDS advocacy through the most unassuming and accessible means possible. To that end we are doing well; young people on the Champs Elysees talked about the pressures on young people to have unprotected sex in order to feel grown up; a young man in Istanbul’s grand bazaar called us over to ask about our t-shirts and, when we had explained our project, declared it a holy journey; our Turkish friend spoke of how HIV/AIDS in Turkish culture isn’t taken seriously (a point lamented by the chap in the bazaar). Indeed our research substantiates the belief that the impact of HIV / AIDS in Turkey is still small – however it is interesting to note that the largest rising infection group is heterosexual and young [Note – the validity of these stats is hazy]. And we hope to raise money for the two charities – The Food Chain and the Camillian Social Centre – both of which do really vital work to support those living with HIV/AIDS – huge thanks to all those who have donated so far!

15 versions of wow!

9 06 2010

As I stand on the precipice about to make the big leap to jump into this adventure, 15 versions of ‘wow!’ have sidled their way into my inbox.  It’s 2 days until I leave my job for good.

A simple ‘see ya later, nice working with you’ email to clients, colleagues and others I have worked with over the last three and half years as an environmentalist resulted in this heartfelt outpouring of wow.  The thing that made me smile more than anything was that they all popped in within 5 minutes of each other in direct response to my email and every single email began with ‘wow!’ followed by some other sharing of luck, shared experience, desire to join us on our journey, or news about new business ventures.  I think everyone should send an email like this at least once in their lives.

… liz’s first ever blog!!!