Rally

A temporary place to chronicle my experience on the Mongol Rally

Month: July, 2012

Caesura

Today starts our third full day in Tbilisi, and the more I see of the city the more I like it. Two days ago the others went out exploring, but since I was really looking forward to a day off, I stayed in the hostel reading, doing laundry, and watching the Olympics. It was a good day, if a little boring, and the break from doing travel things was a nice refresher.

Yesterday, we stayed late in the morning and went out into the town around 3. Our goals were the doll, coin, national, and archeological museums in the center of town, near Liberty Square. Unfortunately, Monday is the day that all of the museums are closed here, and we were turned away from three before we gave up on the fourth. I was still happy to have gotten out; we got off the subway three stops early and walked probably a mile through the back streets. I thought it was for exercise, but evidently there was a mistake made in our navigation; as the least experienced member of the team, I just happily followed, blind to the fact that we were nowhere near our intended destination.

With the museums closed, we decided to try and watch the new Batman movie at the local theater. I was worried it would be in Georgian and we wouldn’t be able to understand it, but the others were confident it would be in English with Georgian subtitles. Luckily for us, the ticket lady told us ahead of time that it was in Russian. Not Georgian, but it still kept us from being able to watch the film.

We returned to the hostel around 4 and I laid down for a nap. At 7, when free dinner got here, I woke up and ate. We had planned to meet up with another team last night at 8:30, but, as has been the case with every other aspect of the Rally, we missed a turn and got their 30 minutes late. We wandered around a bit but eventually decided that we’d missed our opportunity and went home. Facebook confirmed that we had indeed been too late, but the other team wasn’t too worried. I made our apologies and wished them luck on their way to Baku.

A bit of mixed news for me came yesterday. I found out that, because of some of the bureaucratic red tape involved in embassy mail, my passport might be delayed a day or two going through them. Not wanting to leave Alyx waiting for us alone in Aqtau (she’s flying on the 10th, so it would be better if she was alone in Tbilisi, where she’s comfortable and has a hostel, instead of Aqtau, where she’s never been), I tried to have the package held at the local FedEx location. They however, do not speak a word of English, and I couldn’t make the request with them. I sent an email to FedEx International, and they said they couldn’t do it, but they would forward it on to the local office. All this happened yesterday, and in the meantime, the shipping status of my passport was changed to delivered (signed for at front desk). The only problem is it doesn’t list the address to which it was delivered, so my passport is in Tbilisi at one of two locations; I’m just waiting to find out which.

We’d already made plans to meet up with another team tonight (friends we made at the launch party, named Five Crew Canoe) so it’s not a problem to wait and see who emails me about having received the package. I do have to sacrifice another day to being around or near the hostel so I can keep an eye on the email, but I don’t mind. There are a few shops near here and some food, and I’m really enjoying watching the games amongst the international guests here in Georgia. And I suppose if swimming’s on again, I can always catch up on more of my Sherlock Holmes.

Tbilisi, Our Triumphant Entry

We are in the capitol city of Tbilisi, Georgia; we slept in beds last night, had showers, and were treated to free dinner and the local drink, home-made wine. It was a bit dry and more than a bit strong, but the Georgians are very proud of it to the point that it’s considered rude to decline. The four of us shared a carafe and, after several days on the road with water and camp food, I think we all felt the effects. Needless to say, we fell asleep easily; the others are still sleeping, but I woke up an hour ago feeling as good as I have in a while. The effects of depriving oneself of luxury for a while are amazing.

Our entry into Georgia from Turkey (through the border near Batumi) was very easy. We were all a bit wary because we’d heard reports from other ralliers of three-five hour waits to cross, and, accordingly we arrived around 7:00 am. I’m not sure if it’s because we’re Americans (and the Georgians love Americans) or the early hour, but our crossing took no more than thirty minutes; we even had two different border officials sign our car to the effect of, “We love America.”

Coming from a country where religious freedom and tolerance are held dear, it has been a unique experience traveling through religious states. Turkey, while proudly maintaining a secular government, is still a muslim nation, and Georgia is decidedly Christian (a result of their experiences with the Crusaders of the Middle Ages). There can be no better illustration of the situation than the location of the mosque ad church situated on opposite sides of the border. Whatever disagreements one may have with either of the religions, it is somehow reassuring to see peoples so dedicated to their beliefs.

Georgia, much like Romania and Bulgaria, suffers from being a former Soviet state; we have returned from simplicity to poverty, and, even after so short a time in a beautiful place like Turkey, the previously industrialized landscape is striking.

While many arguments can be made in favor of a Communist system (equality of every aspect of life, shared resources, working for the greater good), they all depend on being able to trust your government. I firmly believe that government is by its nature corrupt; people are inherently flawed such that, when given authority, they will abuse it. The classic saying, “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” comes to mind. It was a necessary thing we did when America toppled the Soviet Union; the shame of it comes in the fact that it was necessary.

I am seeing, first-hand, the effects of their fall, but, despite the near destitute state that these countries were left in, we are treated as heroes for liberating them from their socialist leaders. The effects of rapid industrialization followed by the collapse of the supporting entities are, however, appalling. I can only imagine the simple beauty and elegance of these nations had the Soviet Union not taken them. Perhaps I long for a time that never was, as I am admittedly ignorant of the social and economical histories of many of the nations through which we’re traveling, but, seeing the ruined husks of colossal concrete structures, the empty shops, the crumbling neighborhoods, I cannot help but picture a happier place had events not been as they were.

All this said, Tbilisi is a lovely city, comparatively modern, and quite friendly. Again, the entire country of Georgia seems to love Americans (as can be seen by the messages left on our car by border officials and gas station attendants), so it might not be as great as I am seeing; I might also be biased because we found our hostel in a half hour, making this our easiest entry into a city yet. The others went out exploring last night after we got settled, but I opted to stay in and read, enjoying the opportunity to watch a bit of the games and get to (a comfortable) bed early. Our hostel evidently has a nightlife of its own; I woke twice to the sounds of laughter and heated arguments going on in the dining room.

Our little hostel, the Hotel Romantik, is, possibly, my favorite so far. The beds are small and placed too close together, and the showers are nothing more than spigots coming out of the walls of the bathroom (no curtains); but the atmosphere of community gives this quaint (and very cheap, 5 euro per night) accommodation more than enough charm to make up for its shortcomings. The Romantik is actually the basement of a large commercial building, and we nearly missed the place; had a local soldier not shown us the way, we might not have found it for hours. The outside door is always locked, and I’m not sure if I find that comforting or disconcerting. Once you enter, there are rows of rooms on either side of the main hallway built out from the wall like little boxes; each is roughly 7 1/2 feet tall with differing numbers of beds in each. The hallway leads into the dining area (for lack of a better word) which is scattered with small tables around a freestanding bar/television area. The effect is that of an outdoor collection of cabanas, despite it being underground. Right now, I’m sitting “outside” watching the various guests come and go.

While, I still harbor mixed feelings about the country of Georgia, I am absolutely in love with the city of Tbilisi. I’ll venture out today and make a better assessment, but for now, I am content.

Our First Real Trouble

27 July 2012; 20:44

Well, the past two days have been quite trying and little else. Yesterday we woke up, ate oatmeal without milk or butter, broke a wheel, and rode in sullen silence all day. Today, we just sweated and made little progress.

Yesterday morning, we woke up at the rock quarry campsite we stayed in, and ate a less than satisfying breakfast. Our first two hours on the road weren’t the worst of the trip, by any means, as we were still in the mountains. We stopped for a sponge bath at one of the local spring taps along the side of the road, and pressed on. We got gouged on gas when we stopped because it was the only place within a hundred kilometers.

In an effort to give our poor brakes a rest, I volunteered to drive after the gas stop; the others aren’t terribly confident in engine braking. Maybe twenty minutes into the drive, we got behind a driver doing maybe 15 mph. When I tried to pass, I missjudged the width of my lane; there was a pile of rebar on the side of the road, and I planned on maybe having to clip it. I wan’t aware that there was a four inch concrete curb hidden by the rebar, and we plowed over it doing about 25 mph. It gashed our tire and broke the wheel.

I’ve never felt so stupid in my life; it was a bad decision to pass, and I should have known I needed to wait. I was just in Turkish mode and did the wrong thing. Alyx got extremely mad, though I’m not sure it was completely justified. She didn’t talk much for the rest of the day.

We made decent time after we changed the wheel and tire, and made it to Samsun before dark. There we meet up with Chase’s friend who I’ll call Chelsea because I can’t remember her name and couldn’t spell it if I did. It was nice talking to a fluent English speaker outside our little group for a while.

Since it was well after dark when we left and everyone was alseep in the car, I decided to drive past our decided spot and look for a more secluded campsite. A little after midnight, I realized how tired I was and that I wasn’t going to be able to look for a campsite and keep my eyes on the road. I woke Chase, and he found an excellent spot.

A hundred kilometers further along than we expected, we lounged this morning and played in the sea for a while, Chase and I getting nice sunburns; we’re hoping they turn into tans instead of dry and peeled skin. We stopped in Trabzon for lunch, but none of us were feeling terribly well; we decided it was dehydration and made a good point of drinking lots of water for the rest of the day. It worked, and now we’re all drenched in sweat.

Shortly before the Georgian border, we stopped and picked up a soccer ball, finally admitting to ourselves that we need some way to blow off steam other than sitting quietly in the car when we’re upset. Planning to camp short of the border and save the crossing for the morning, we were surprised when we emerged from a tunnel to find border guards directing traffic. We turned around and found our campsite; right now, we’re each on top of our own huge boulder. I’m the only one smart enough to use the tent as a mosquito net.

I’d write more, but I’m pouring sweat and anxious to try to get to sleep. Tomorrow is the border and a long haul on to Tblisi. We’re all ready for a night in a real bed and a good real shower.

Friendliest Place in the World

25 July, 2012; 18:21

Right now, we’re about 250km shot of Sinoc, our goal for today’s driving. We’ve found what looks to be an open storage area for rock, and we plan to use the mounds at the far end to conceal us a bit for tonight’s camping. The others are playing down in the ocean, but I’m in the car watching; the water’s cold this afternoon, and I’m enjoying the time to myself to collect my thoughts. It’s amazing how quickly a strong desire to be alone can come upon you after spending all your time with the same people. It’s not that we’re fighting, just that it’s nice to spend a little time inside your own head.

Today was possibly the best of the Rally so far. We woke just before the sun rose and had a simple breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee; I’d hoped once we hit Turkey, I could start drinking real coffee, but the offerings at the gas stations are sparse, and the instant is there in the mornings. After breakfast, we set off down the coast.

I initially had no idea how mountainous today’s route would be, and it was a pleasant surprise when the highway slowly narrowed to a one and a half lane road winding between the less than humble peaks of central Turkey. As we made our way through quaint little villages, I remembered the reasons I might be willing to leave the convenience and comfort of home behind someday; while Eastern Europe could only be called impoverished, the village Turks live in simplicity. The villages are not without electricity, though they seem to use it sparingly, and the road wasn’t abandoned so communication with the outside world is present; most of the houses even had satelite dishes, I assume for both internet and television.

Eventually, we stumbled upon a market day, not unlike a farmer’s market, in the small village of Armuthreuma (I’ll have to confirm the spelling of that). We decided to stop so that Alyx could buy a skirt and be more socially acceptable in conservative Islamic areas, and we needed to restock our food supplies since rice and beans is becoming monotonous. Almost as soon as we stopped we were greeted by a half dozen people, all with varying degrees of proficiency in English. We browsed the market stalls a bit and picked up some onions, potatoes, beans, and bananas. Eventually, one man whose English was the most familiar invited us on a tour of the town.

I break here, because everyone came out of the water to make camp and cook dinner.

Anyway, the man’s name was Kemar, and he was a former Turkish commando. At his first offer of a tour, I was hesitant and stayed with Alyx by the car in the market. Eventually, she went to find the others, and they evidently toured the little village, including a trip to the fields and the local mosque. When they returned, much to my relief, we all sat down in a local cafe to have tea and continue talking with our welcoming hosts.

After tea, confident now in their hospitable intentions, we went with Kemar and his brother to visit their parents. The two brothers didn’t live in the small village; instead, they were visiting their family. Their parents had lived in Germany for 37 years and spend a great deal of time talking with Chase in German. He was very excited to get a chance to use what he’d learnt in school in a practical setting. After we visited the brothers’ grandmother and cousin, we left the town with a free bag of figs, peppers, and hazlenuts. Turkish hospitality, known worldwide, is everything we were told it would be.

About two miles down the road, Chase realized he couldn’t find his phone, and we made a trip back to the town to search the places it could have fallen from his pocket. Ultimately, Kemar and his brother helped us find it in our car, under a backpack and several bottles of water. Happy to be able to help, they signed our car in three different places.

After our stop in rural Turkey, we were back on the road. We stopped in Batin for lunch where a local helped us decipher the menu; we ate sausage sandwiches and were full for the first time in a day and a half. From there, it was senic driving to our campsite tonight, where we cooked up some of our potatoes and onions into a tasty hash. Today, we have been welcomed as guests and eaten like kings; truly this is the point of being on the Mongol Rally.

Out of the Labyrinth

24 July 2012; 20:53

Today’s exodus from Istanbul and arrival at the Black Sea was an adventure of mixed emotions. Leaving Istanbul was possibly the hardest thing we’ve had to do, and not just because we didn’t want to; it took us nearly two hours of driving in circles to get onto a road that would take us out of town going East. We did finally find our route, and we began making our way deeper into Asia.

After about four hours on the road, we made it north to the coast of the Black Sea, and, instantly taken with its beauty, we pulled over and played in the water for more than an hour. It was a great trip back to childhood, letting the waves crash over us, trying to stand up to them, swimming out and feeling like flying when a big swell came up; it truly was paradise, even if it was a bit salty.

From there we drove on along the coast into the hills toward central Turkey. We reached a road under construction, and eventually had to stop and wait for the earthmoving equipment to clear the road. While we stopped, some locals took notice of Michal’s camera and invited him over to take their pictures; Alyx got a nasty surprise when she followed him and was asked to go back to the car. Evidently, men drinking their tea is an unwelcome place for a woman in the more conservative areas of Turkey.

It was around that time that Chase noticed his camera missing. The only place he could have left it was on the beach, so we all loded back into the car and headed back. Unfortunately, when we arrived, it was no longer their, either picked up or carried away by the waves. I feel awful for him, and I’m really without a strategy as to how to let him know how sorry I am that it happened to him; he loves taking pictures, and now he doesn’t have his camera.

We’ve set up camp here where he lost it since we’ve lost the light. With luck, we’ll make it up in the morning before anyone comes to tell us we can’t camp here. Then, another few days of the same: driving and camping. I think I hear beans and rice calling me.

Istanbul

It’s been a bit, but I’m finally somewhere that I can use my iPad to update. Our hostel in Bucharest was having internet problems, so I only got the chance to send out a couple emergency emails, but I didn’t mind terribly; we got in late and left early, so there wasn’t the most time in the world for it.

When we left El Dorado, we found ourselves on what must be the greatest road in the world. The Transfagarasan was not only a great drive, but as scenic a route as I can imagine. It starts low just outside Sibiu, and it gradually begins to wind its way up into the Carpathian Mountains. Without much warning, it begins to rise through massive rock outcroppings, across gorgeous valleys, and between towering trees. Right before you get to the switchbacks, there is a beautiful valley where we stopped several times to take pictures, and Michael and Chase took the opportunity to jump into the stream fed from a spring higher up. Eventually, though, we made it onto the definitive section of road that curves back and forth, snaking up the steep mountainside like no other path in the world. Out the windows of the car, you can see the traditional footpaths still used by the local shepherds.

On the other side of the mountains is a man-made reservoir between two of the other mountains that extends probably 30 kilometers. Unfortunately, past that, the landscape resumes its gradual descent into the monotony that stuck with us through Bulgaria.

That night we stayed in Bucharest, which I thought would be the definition of poverty, and indeed, we stayed in a bit of a run down neighborhood. We pushed past our fears though and ventured out into the night. As it turns out, there is enough of a language barrier that it was hard to see anything, and, again, we got in late, so we only walked over to the Parliament building before returning to the hostel. Our hostess did, however, make us bracelets in the colors of the Romanian flag.

What had been the most impoverished area I’ve ever seen was made to look nearly affluent once we entered Bulgaria. Other than a couple of select cities, the countryside was nothing but abandoned structures and farmland (which looked a little like a drought had been through). This was along the major E route we were on; once we got lost in the southern part, we really did see the extent of how bad it can be for a former Soviet country. Abandoned factories turned to abandoned farms and houses. In one village (where we finally got directions back onto our route), easily two thirds of the structures stood empty and neglected.

After the ordeal of getting lost in Bulgaria, seeing the Turkish border was a welcome experience. Our only problem was that none of us had any currency, and the exchanges wouldn’t take cards. Luckily, I remembered the cash I’d picked up at the PX in Belgium and we were back on track. Hopefully, the Turkish border was a learning experience, as it will likely be the easiest one we have to cross (except maybe Georgia). Even after the cash situation, we couldn’t find anywhere to purchase our insurance for driving in Turkey. After asking nearly anyone who’d stop to listen to us and not finding any English speakers, we decided to just plow through the border and let the guards tell us what to do. As it turns out, that was the right answer, and a very friendly few border guards gave us instructions without getting too frustrated with us.

We made it through with only a few minor glitches. We didn’t remember to go through customs, so we had to turn around and take care of that, which cost us a half hour, but we’d planned to get into Istanbul late anyway. This was a good plan, as we didn’t reach the city until 11 last night; even then, it was after one when we found our hostel. Embarrassingly enough, on our road trip, we eventually had to park the car and split the team up so that the car was guarded and we could venture out on foot to find the place. In this city more than 1000 years old, there are so many one way streets that wind back and forth to nowhere that it’s next to impossible to navigate without an excellent map; ours was not excellent. We did finally find the place and get the car parked reasonably closely (and pretty cheaply at 20 TL for two days of parking) before we collapsed.

Today, I am ashamed to say, we slept until after noon because our windows are darkened and we didn’t know about it. Once we were all out of bed, however, we made good use of our limited time here and walked the couple miles to the Sultanhamet district where we walked through the spice bazar and trade streets before seeing the Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, the Aya Sofia, once a church then a mosque and now a museum, was closed today, and, since we were all in shorts, we couldn’t enter the worship area of the Blue Mosque. It wasn’t the end of the world, as both are staggeringly beautiful buildings, and we spent a great deal of time wandering the square between the two appreciating the views. In total, we probably walked around 6 miles up and down hills, and I drank 3 liters of water in five hours; I still suspect it wasn’t enough and I’ll need to make up for it while we’re driving tomorrow.

A few tips I can share about traveling in foreign parts of the world are: always buy a map at or around the 1:25000 scale because anything else, especially in large cities, will leave out too many details, and in the older cities (i.e. most of the rest of the world), there are tons of tiny streets with no clear markings so the picture helps; also, learn at least a little bit of the language. It hasn’t been practical for us to pick up more than “thank you” and “excuse me” since we’re never in one language region for more than a few days, but if we had known any of the languages of the areas we’ve been, it would have been incomparably easier and more rewarding; given the scale of our task, though, I think we’re doing just fine.

I know I was optimistic about having pictures up tonight, and I did get them copied onto a disc, but for some reason, the internet or Alyx’s computer (my bet’s on the internet though) was having problems getting them to upload to my Dropbox, so I don’t have any to share. Maybe in Tblisi there will be another chance to try.

Our next few days will be on the road, and, for the first time on the trip, we’ll get to do some wild camping. The plus side is that we won’t have to pay, but the down side is that we won’t have luxuries such as showers, toilets, or internet. I think we’ll make it, and it’s all part of the spirit of the rally anyway.

El Dorado (no really)

Where to begin? It’s been a bit of a crazy ride since we left Poland. We drove down through Slovakia and into Hungary last night, and only found our campsite by the grace of a stranger. Today, we woke up and made our way into Romania, and tonight we’re camping outside.

Yesterday was easily the most terrified I’ve been on the entire trip. After a pleasant enough drive through Slovakia we crossed the border into Hungary and found ourselves in Ozt. The former Soviet city was left nearly abandoned, only the ghosts of factories and monumental concrete structures standing testament to it’s former industrial glory. We stopped in a gas station to ask for more specific directions to our campsite in Borsobota, and to our immediate horror, neither of the attendants had heard of the city that was supposedly just down the road from us. Fortunately, a very kind and generous man overheard our conversation and explained that he drives through Borsobota on his way home every day; he invited us to follow him, and, without any other options, we accepted.

Our fear started as mock gallows humor, joking about how we were probably being led down the road to an ambush of some sort. When our road got down to a single lane winding through tall weeds and scattered trees up the side of a mountain, our worries became a bit more earnest. We dug out Chase’s Maglight and hoped for the best.

As it turned out, our concern was for nothing, and our kind guide even helped us drive around the tiny village looking for our campsite. When we found it, he sat down with us and the owners to give us some first-hand advice on our days to come. I’ll divide his suggestions into two categories, advice that’s payed off and advice that hasn’t yet, and I’ll address the latter and then the former.

First, he told us the tattered histories of Hungary and Romania and about the Roma population growth in both countries. Then he told us about the gypsies. Rule number one: never give them anything; number two: never stop the car; number three: don’t drive at night. He also referred to the Carpathian Mountains as the end of Europe. Everything East (including a good chunk of Romania) isn’t “civilized.” Since we haven’t stopped more than twice for bathrooms and gas and got to our campsite with a few hours of sun left in the sky, we haven’t had to head much of this advice; also, our journey across the mountains is tomorrow.

What we did use was his advice about the corruption in the Romanian police force: never pay them. Only minutes after crossing the border, we were flagged into a roadside checkpoint and asked to present proof that we’d payed our “road tax.” If you don’t know, there is indeed a road tax in Romania (which we didn’t pay), but it doesn’t apply to E route roads that are funded by the EU. In a moment of brilliance, Chase played the part of the “dumb American,” explained that we didn’t have any cash but would be happy to pay our fine at the nearest police station by card, and somehow, we were free to go without any more discussion.

After this incident, we made it pretty well the rest of the day. We were stopped at one other checkpoint but only because our headlights weren’t on. A friendly wave later we were back on the road with no problems (or fines).

Tomorrow we head to Bucharest via the Transfagarasan Highway, which is supposedly the greatest drive in the world. If I can find a photo shop to get my pictures put on disc, I’ll try to get them up tomorrow night, but if not, I should be able to in Istanbul the next day.

Krakow

It’s the morning of the 19th, and once again, the Chuggabugs prepare to depart. After a day an a half in Krakow we’re getting read to get on the road toward Slovakia and into Hungary. We’ve only got about five (so probably eight with our sense of direction) hours of driving today, so it should be much more pleasant than our exodus from the Czech Republic. Considering we’ll be camping tonight, I can only hope the weather holds.

Krakow has been an amazing city to stay in, and I’m not the least bit ashamed about how much of a tourist I’ve been. Will showed us to the Old City Square where we got some awesome photos. After that we went walking around and found a little pub for lunch. I was excited about ordering weiner-schnitzel, but I was surprised to find out that it’s just thin friend pork chop. When my plate came, it was bigger than any three other meals I’ve eaten on the whole trip. It was good though. Along with the schnitzel I got two spare ribs and a duck leg and thigh with potatoes and sour cabbage on the side. I ate every bite, even though it hurt.

After the big meal, we wandered some more, and Chase dropped his film with the developers. We went back to our hostel and unloaded our things into our room, and I had a hard time fighting off a nap. Then we walked Will down to the bus stop. After his bus came, we walked over to get some ice cream and pick up Chase’s photos.

Back at the hostel, we crowded around the computer to look at the expertly taken pictures (alongside the amateur ones), and then we prepared to go our separate ways for the night; every once in a while, it’s good to split up so that we don’t spend so much time together that we hate one another. I’m not entirely sure where the others went, but I decided to pub hop and found some wonderful places to stop and watch a soccer game.

I do feel bad that I didn’t find anyone to talk to; I passed a few groups I heard speaking English, but one group was a family, one was a pair of women fighting, and the third was a group of guys leaving a bar as I went in. I will try to do better in the future, and, if I’m honest, the sound of Polish is terrifying to me so I’ve been a bit off balance since we’ve been here.

I’ve had to face a few hard truths about traveling and myself so far on this trip, but it is giving me an idea of what I’d like to improve in the future. The most important thing (and, unfortunately, one I can’t easily fix) is that continental Europe doesn’t believe in normal drip coffee; you either have to spend $2-3 on an Americano (espresso mixed with hot water) or settle for instant. So far I’ve been doing a mixture of both, but, for financial reasons, I’m about to get very comfortable with the instant. It would be nice, after all, to be able to enjoy being in the amazing places we’ll stop like Istanbul and Ulan Bator without worrying about how much it’s costing me.

On a more personal level, I’ve discovered I’m much more timid than the last time I went outside my comfort zone. I’d like to believe it’s due to my expectation that nobody around me speaks/understands my language, but I know it’s something less excusable than that. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but I think it’s something to do with a fear of them not accepting me in some strange, intangible way. My only option is to plow through and start talking to people; hopefully I’ll still have plenty of opportunity to meet some interesting people and bring their stories back with me.

Our next two nights will be camping, so I’m not sure if we’ll have any easy access to WiFi, but after that we’ll be in Bucharest at a hostel. Given the relatively short time we’ll be on the road, I’m sure I’ll have plenty to upload on Saturday.

Hard Driving

Well, two days of hard driving have kept me away from the keyboard, not that we’ve come across a usable WiFi connection in that time. We’ve had many adventures since departing from our ferry ride across the channel, and I’ll try to get it all down before I fall asleep tonight. Hopefully, I’ll have a bit more time and energy to fill in any gaps tomorrow.

We piddled around when the call came to return to our car as the ferry docked in Calais, and we were attaching our headlamp adjusters (required for driving a British car in the EU) as the ramp was lowering; we literally shut the doors on our car as Chase was pulling away. From there we drove out of France and into Belgium, headed for Brussels. When we got there, we had no real way to get ahold of Chase’s brother Daniel, our host for the night. In true Chuggabug form, we pulled into the driveway of a house that might have been his, and began trying to come up with a way to get in touch.

About an hour into our walking around this very upscale neighborhood, a BMW pulled up next to us (this is roughly 3 AM local time) and a man gets out and explained that we were in his driveway. We apologized for about five minutes straight and explained our situation; I will never forget his reaction. First, he offered us the use of his WiFi to try to find Daniel’s information. When our phones wouldn’t pick it up from outside his house, he volunteered his computer… The man let a complete stranger who’d been sitting in his driveway come into his house and use his computer. Chase got Daniel’s phone number but couldn’t find the address, and, unfortunately, Daniel didn’t answer. Then, after what had to be one of the strangest encounters of this poor man’s life, seeing the plight of four dirty (and smelly) kids from Arkansas, this incredibly kind gentleman let us sleep in his extra room for a few hours before he had to go to work at 9. I cannot being to fathom what prompted him to offer us such incredible hospitality, but I know I’ll never forget it. The next morning, he even gave us water and cookies to take along with us.

That morning, we found Daniel’s house (about 1/10 of a mile down the road) and finished our nap, well into the afternoon. We woke up and restocked at the airforce base, and Daniel took us into the center of Brussels and gave us a grand cultural tour. We stopped for Belgian waffles and drank ‘the best beer in the world.’ The next morning, we woke up clean, fed, and rested and headed out to the Czechout Party in Klenova Castle, Czech Republic.

From Brussels, the drive to Klenova is straight across the whole of Germany, and since we stayed an extra night, we had to do it all in one day. We got out later than we wanted and decided to stop in Nuremburg to see some of the sights, so we didn’t make it to the party until about 10 PM. Our stop in Nuremburg was well worth it though, and we got to wander around the historic district surrounding the Imperial Castle, former home of the Holy Roman Empire.

Klenova wasn’t a bad time, and it was certainly a unique experience to attend a party in a medieval castle, but overall, it wasn’t worth the hurry we put into crossing Germany. We did get to meet up again with several teams on similar routes so we’ll have plenty of English-speaking company for the most trying parts of our journey.

This morning we wok up in Klenova and left out on our way to Krakow, Poland to meet Will, Chase’s friend from El Dorado. We knew it’d be another long day of driving straight through, but we weren’t expecting the 14 hour ordeal it turned into. We stopped in Prague and got lost for an hour, which was really a lot of fun in the end. However, as I napped, we somehow ended up about an hour off our route and had to plan out a completely new path over supermarket Chinese food. We ended up taking a beautiful drive down Route 11 through the Eastern Czech Republic (I mention it by name because it’s the single best drive I’ve ever taken and you all should too if you ever get the chance), but it was slow going up and down the mountains, so we ended up in Ostrava two hours late. Then, because of construction, we had to take an alternate road to Krakow; at just after midnight, we finally pulled into our hostel, met Will, and now we’re sitting here eating ramen and retelling our adventures. Safe, dry, warm, and soon to be clean, we go to bed ready for a day of sightseeing tomrrow.

The Rally Begins

14 July 2012; 20:42

Well, we made it from Goodwood to the White Cliffs of Dover and aboard the ferry to Calais. Right now, I’m enjoying a nice break from driving listening to a healthy dose of 80’s hair metal ballads waiting to enter France. We just put the first miles of the Mongol Rally behind us, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Our lap around Goodwod was surprisingly fun, as the drivers decided to push the limits of our little adventure wagons. I don’t think we got below 40mph on the whole circuit (although we probably only got above 55 once). The Wiz, as we’ve affectionately dubbed our ‘black and yellow’ Ignis, made an admirabe effort, but at the end of the day, none of the teams are driving the kind of vehicles that would impress even the most generous of motoring fans.

We met a number of interesting characters at the launch, including one man driving solo in a Smart; he seemed to be a bit of a world traveler, so I expect he’ll make it just fine, though I know I’d be terrified. Then again, I don’t have any experience in this sort of thing, so I’m just hoping to compensate in the form of teammates.

I suppose talking about the individual members of the the Arkansas Chuggabugs can’t be avoided forever. Chase and I have always known that we’d get along just fine, but we’ve also long since come to terms with the fact that we’re not the organizational geniuses that this kind of undertaking demands. I also had an understanding that Michael and Alyx were pretty high strung, but I figured I could get around that since we needed some practical attitudes to make it all happen. Unfortunately, I may have underestimated the Little Rock duo’s tendency to get stressed out and overestimated their planning abilities.

I always planned on Alyx being a bit of a pain; even in the early stages she seemed to be a little too committed to her assumptions of how the trip would go; for example, she all but refused to come to Birmingham until the last minute, when she decided it would be too expensive to stay in London and impractical to meet up at Goodwood. Add to that her inability to function under the tiniest amount of stress and you get the full, disfunctional picture of the girl. We intended to find a decent breakfast before going to the motor circuit this morning, but, after five minutes of driving without seeing anything, without any warning, she changed her mind and was desperate to get to the motor circuit as quickly as possible. She also has no tolerance for being lost; Chase and I love the process of finding our way around since it affords us unique opportunities to discover hidden destinations we’d never otherwise see, but, as soon as we’re off our known route, she insists on stopping for directions (which just doesn’t seem very adventurous to me).

Chase reassured me many times that Michael would be like us, easygoing and not too concerned with precision in the process, so long as the end result was satisfactory. Much to my dismay, he’s turned out to be as bad as Alyx in terms of stress and adventure. He’s more open to other interpretations of the trip, but his sole focus is making his documentary, sometimes at the expense of experiencing the Rally (and as often as not, at the expense of the entire team experiencing the Rally). I realize that filmmaking is his passion and primary reason for joining the team, but I can’t imagine missing the greatest adventure of my life to be behind a camera.

Honestly, I know that we couldn’t be here without Alyx and Michael, but their fighting (the type of which that only happens between roommates) is bordering on distracting, and I’m debating whether or not to bring it up the next time it happens; my main hesitation is that I know we’re all under a lot of stress and we’ll all have points when we aren’t the most friendly. I had mine this morning, and, like everyone else, I got over it quickly enough. Those two just seem to have that problem more frequently than any other people I associate with. Ultimately, I feel like it’s all part of the learning process, and, like the flat tires, border problems, and navigational issues we’re about to face, it’s just another part of the grand experience.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my shoulders, it’s time to talk of happier things.

Today was easily the best day we’ve had driving thus far; Chase had the good sense to book us on a late ferry, so, instead of taking the quicker route along the M20, we took the A27 along the southern coast and got some magical views; between the hills and sea, we’ll have some irreplacable photos. We only got lost once, in the small town of Pevensie, where we took the A359 going the wrong direction. We stopped at the first pub we passed to ask directions, and, after telling the gentleman our ultimate destination, we were treated a storm of well-wishes be him an his friends; as it turns out, he works in visa servicing, was well aware of the details of the Rally, and was thrilled to have a chance to meet and talk to a team in person. Our spirits bolstered, we ‘buggered on.’

I did the driving for the day, and I’m very glad I did. There were more than a couple handfuls of times when there were less than six inches of clearance on either side of our car as we were sandwiched between oncoming traffic and vehicles parked on the sidewalk. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I cannot overstate the ‘do what you need to’ nature of driving in England. Now that we’re heading into the rest of Europe (where they drive on the right and correct side of the road), Chase and Michael will take over a larger portion of the driving, and we’ll be able to teach Alyx the finer points of driving stick in the countryside.

Again, I’m pleased as pie with our progress and the current position of the Chuggabugs. We’ll drive tonight into the wee hours of the morning and sleep indoors wth Chase’s brother in Brussels, and then continue on to the Czech Republic tomorrow and Monday. I know I’ve complained a lot (probably too much) about many things, but I wouldn’t change a thing about our trip. Tomorrow holds even more excitement and adventure, and I cannot remember a brighter horizon as I continue on the Mongol Rally.