Saturday, 21 May 2016

Confirming my speed. Visiting Calais.

Clouds gather in mountains. Between Vienna and Innsbruck was constant rain and I mostly abandoned my planned detours to make good time to my years-neglected family visiting. Paul and Ruth now live up a different mountainside, and cousin Roy has a wife and daughter. But he found time to troubleshoot my rear-light (how many Debbages to change a lightbulb?! As long as one of them is a lighting engineer…) And on to Deidesheim, German wine country, to see Alex and Cecile from cycling in Istanbul. Another lovely stop. And on to Ghent, Laurens the Belgian from my little central Asian cycling troop, the velocidroogs we called ourselves. I have been, in Alex's words, digging my past. Almost a week of evenings reminiscing and debriefing. Laura, Roy, Alex, Cecile, Laurens; we all change, but not so much. A little odd to finally catch up with so many old cycling friends now so quickly. Laurens called me out on it almost immediately: I google translated your blog: would you like to borrow a bicycle? 

I have a few days off the machine, anyway. A little ambivalent about having finished with it for now….

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Some weeks ago the authorities in Calais destroyed a large, Southern swathe of the Jungle refugee camp. Some of those resident there moved to another large camp in Dunkirk, some to much smaller ones scattered along the coast, some were convinced to move into the shipping containers provided by the prefecture, some - especially unaccompanied children - remain unaccounted for, but most of the residents whose shelters were destroyed remain in the Jungle. There are now over five thousand people living in the camp, with about forty new arrivals daily. By the end of May there will be more people living in the Jungle than there were before March's evictions.

I'm sat at a table in the quiet corner of a marquee pitched in the large yard of a non-descript, semi-derelict warehouse complex in one of Calais' many industrial zones. Behind me is an enormous pile of timber; mainly broken pallet components and dimensioned offcuts. On the other side of the woodpile are two workbenches and two, blunt and failing circular saws. Beyond them a forklift is loading cubic metre sacks full of stove-size lengths of wood onto an old flatbed van. It's 730pm. The forklift driver is Ben, who has worked seven days a week for the last six weeks to coordinate the collection, storage, processing and daily delivery of this firewood to the refugee camp where it meets about one third of the need for cooking fuel; the other two thirds are largely unmet. At this point I stop writing to check if he'd like a hand with the bag handles onto the forks, but I'm too late for the first ten bags. Instead he briefly explains the controls and lets me learn the forklift to load the last two. This is very much in the spirit of the warehouse, which is run completely by volunteers with no hierarchy beyond longevity of stay and skill-set. It operates seven days a week usually employing around 60 people in its daily efforts which include the sorting and distribution of vast quantities of food, clothing, stoves, lights, fuel and sanitary products. The building workshop prefabs shelters to be installed in the camp. Kitchens and community centres within the camp are supplied and staffed. Large crews of single-day corporate volunteers work to clear and level ground for new developments around the warehouse site. Minibuses ferry outreach and pastoral workers the mile distance to the Jungle, past the teams of machine-gun toting national police who control its edges.  Most of the volunteers I meet are English. They are of all ages but mainly under 35, they fill the city's hostels and at night one pub in particular. Some come for a day, a weekend, some planned that and have stayed for weeks. Most return. Some have become indispensable, with literally thousands of people depending on their organisational skills every day. The long termers stay in caravans cluttered around the warehouse. They are an exhausted, hugely capable group achieving quite incredible feats of organisation and acted compassion despite their transience and perpetual hangovers.

This morning I went with Ben to deliver the firewood processed yesterday. We were quickly met and greeted by Iranians, Ethiopians, Afghans, Kuwaitis and Eritreans anxious to get a pile of wood for their shared kitchens. Many explained that they had had no fuel for days or weeks.  The desperation is great and to avoid too many disagreements Ben has taken to arriving before most of the refugees are up and about, leaving the yard at 730am. Of course there is a high degree of mafiaisation in the camp, and all of the warehouse's distribution activities have to be carefully thought out and constantly reviewed to try and minimise wastage to those elements. Nonetheless, there is a palpable absence of cynicism amongst the volunteers, who emanate the same kind of benevolent anarchism I know from my favourite places at home. I am quickly comfortable here. I arrived on Wednesday and have been mainly working in the wood yard, cutting timber, building work benches, trying to optimise processes for short term volunteers with no experience tasked with producing tons of stove fuel from smashed and naily pallets. I spent Friday riding around the forests to the South, visiting saw-mills and foresters with a Scottish linguist riding pillion, trying to find the golden-ticket company that generates thirty tons of timber waste each week… 

But all of the departments here have shortages. Donations arrive constantly in vehicles small and large, but more is always needed. Most of all, of course, money, and time from those who can commit longer term. 

A list of current needs is kept here 

I'll come home on Monday evening.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

writer's/engine block

I'm in Slovakia, via Hungary in the end because the Ukrainians wouldn't let me in. It didn't occur to me on buying my first motor vehicle that I'd have to register my ownership. No matter that I'm the tenth person to have the pleasure, or that it cost me less than half what my touring bicycle did. Nyet. The border guards enjoyed it for sure, you're not in Europe anymore, kid! So I failed in my own little Brexit, and turned around to re-enter Romania suddenly anxious that if they also insisted on the correct moto-documents then I'd be stuck interminably, neither properly in nor properly out of Europe...

Romania peaked when I got into the Carpathians. I didn't see any of Europe's largest population of apex predators, but just knowing there be bears in these trees felt great. There was a deer in the road but I scarpered it from a hundred metres. Anyway I hardly stopped. Now that my back is no more painful than usual, the milage is a bit addictive. And now that I've finally gotten the hang of the corners, they're a joy. I could write a lot about the machine, how it goes, the noises it makes and all the very specific things I've learnt about its optimal operation. I ride the first hour or so without earplugs so that I can listen and be sure that all is well. Excepting the brittle groan in the lower ranges of second and third gear which after days I realised was just the resonant frequency of the little crack around one of the windscreen mounting bolts, all is well. By early afternoon when its fluids are hot, the engine produces its best work at around six to seven thousand rpm. By evening with my earplugs in and my neck angled just-so - the helmet in line with the lee of the screen - there is barely a sound at six and a half thousand. That's ninety miles in barely an hour. 

The thing is, all of these facts (I barely scratch the surface) are really boring. The new adventure spec bikes from BMW can compare to my 23 year old machine as close enough to half the weight and double the power. There's limitless potential to be seduced by this stuff, but it leaves one with so little that's interesting to say! I used to love describing landscapes. I've seen so many this last week, and they've gone by so fast, and I've been so focused on the few hundred metres of tar in front of me, that I've only a half formed sentence about all the different greens after the Romanian rain. And something about steaming road and apple blossom. And the sunset through cumulonimbus over Bratislava as I flew towards it. But its all half formed and unwritten because immediately a thought comes a truck indicates and I have to forget it and do the mirrors and signals.

It's also more difficult to meet people from beneath layers of leather, kevlar and carbon fibre. I must look terrifying, and it takes me about three minutes to park the bike, dismount and remove my gloves, helmet and earplugs. Same rules for photographs. I'm not complaining. Really, I am really, really enjoying the corners. And the accelerating, and the engine braking noises, and an acquired finesse between throttle and clutch which enables me to allow a modicum of unburnt fuel into the hot exhaust where it can explode gunshots as I speed through mountain tunnels for nobody's enjoyment but mine.

But what can you say about that?! 

I'm in Bratislava today. This evening I'm expected in Vienna by Laura, my old pal from cycling through Turkey, We'll go to an exhibition opening and I'll have a shower. Then I'm planning lots of twisty detours along Austria's alpine length, before visits to family and friends in Innsbruck, Munich, Mannheim, Ghent and Lille. 

I did very much enjoy meeting these two Romanians:

Friday, 6 May 2016

the motorcycle years

Last Saturday night I slept on the Croatian highway, pitched right against the unbound macadam of a slip road to nowhere. Absent any soft standing for half of the tent pegs, I bungeed instead off the bike's hot undercarriage; a highly effective, suboptimal solution. It had been a long day of three countries, three cities and many roads. I am a Spring month earlier into the Balkans than my last visit; a month wetter and a month cooler. A month earlier into twilight and its urgency to camp. Of course it is much more difficult to disappear from the highway with a machine weighing in wet at almost a quarter of a ton, plus baggage, road tyres and one is much limited in wild-camping (yes, a Balkan road is still quite wild!). I progress East South East with a nightly evidenced rapidity; instead of viable infrastructure dwindling at a rate of weeks, by engine it is gone in a day. To the village there is one road and behind its houses that road stops, its tar giving out first to stone, then abruptly to rut and mud. Of course I got stuck in exactly such a rut, between two foul reens and perpendicular to either useful direction. Revs and curses drew an old man, approaching timid as a boy. He helped with yells and pushes and I managed to get out before the entire village descended on us. One feels less right to trespass when so highly mechanised. In that initial futile heaving I re-tore an old muscular scar somewhere between sacrum and pelvis. Misfortunes trivial or serious tend to cluster; woe begets adversity and they escalate one another. In this way searching becomes lost becomes injured, becomes less resilient and more compromised, becomes sleeping on a road. As ever it was tomorrow in the morning and I proceeded stiff in back and pace to Belgrade, stopping only to break bread with Turkish truckers - a ritual happily as familiar as any in my road tripping.

I first met Jack thirteen years ago in Thailand. I was young, far from home and about to peak into my first, pivotal, psychedlic experience. He looked after a stranger generously, and remembered me when chance we met months later at university. On this my third arrival in Belgrade he furnished me a small but homely flat in typical, enigmatically capable fashion: find a cafe to collect an envelope containing an address, key and currency to eat with. He met me later for beers, mixed grill and a boozy but rather abortive Orthodox Easter Sunday night on the town. We enjoyed ourselves anyway and on the way home, drunk on bad beer I found myself waxing lyrical about the machine I'd arrived upon. It all comes out; as it happens I'm more impressed than I'd realised. This from one who generally holds the auto-emotive in no mild scorn... I unravel! How frail resolve. A good friend commented Great to see the blog back with a more cynical and less romantic perspective - "The Very Public Diary of Kaleb Debbage: The Motorcycle Years."  I'll leave that there. In Belgrade I was struck again by the polarisation of the Balkans, by the way that fortune also clusters. It was lovely to move in such luxury with Jack and his friends, another fish lunch, another nice restaurant, but also strange so soon before and after those nowhere villages of Romania and Croatia. Clearly the situational proximity is amplified by the novel pace; I'm seeing the continent all sped-up, with hardly time to locate myself relative to the socio-economic gradient, let alone reconcile how I might feel about it. Like a holiday! Thanks again for the spoiling, Jack.

I left Eastward concerned about the pain behind me. It was bad enough to send anxious messages home, improvise a lumbar roll from my waterproofs and take whatever the pharmacists would sell me. Not bad enough to rest properly... but bad enough to take a room on the Serbian Romanian border. A good excuse in the rain. In the morning I got some serious pills and some serious relief. I'm cautious now about the weighty manuevers, hoiking the machine on and off the centre stand feels risky each time. So I default to the side stand (which anyway looks much cooler) the angle of which, with the laden bike and the knowledge that I didn't replace the bearing and pin when I could've, also feels risky each time. But a mechanical risk rather than a muscular-skeletal one, which is of course precisely what machines are for; you can't strip and lube the sacral area. So there's extra cause to seek optimal camping spots. To start and finish riding early. To take more breaks. To remember that I am at leisure.

Just in time I've reached the Black Sea. Excluding this morning, I reckon I've not been in it since about 1987. I'm afraid I skipped most of the little-heard of (by me) archaeo/anthropological wonders between Belgrade and here, so they can remain such. I am a lazy tourist, ever preferring the greasy, Slavic eateries where a two euro coin gets you half a pound of steaming burek, a glass of salted yogurt and a small wad of dinar, to the places I ought to have seen. I can say that somewhere in Croatia I intersected with a previous trajectory of mine, and felt briefly sentimental. And that in Romania I've finally completed the Danube. And that the clutch is still buttery.

rut stuck

Belgrade again






Voda Negra, Vama Veche

Saturday, 30 April 2016

close possible worlds and Alpine Glory

In a close possible world I might have cycled into Zurich. Then my delight at recognising one of those funky, open spaces that Germanic cities seem to do so well (stacked and stencilled shipping containers with wall gardens, smiles, dreadlocks and bicycles abundant) wouldn't have been tempered by the realisation that by my choice of transport I have traded away a certain currency amongst a certain set of people. I remember arriving in similar creative spaces in German and Austrian cities where my loaded bicycle acted as a passport to cross-lingual cool and acceptance, a free coffee, wifi even; no longer. Of course you may order what you like from the café, Sir, but you should probably move your motorcycle off the pavement. It was the Sir that really stung of course. I´m no longer an aspirational figure to the idealistic continental twenty-something. Or perhaps it´s just that I've crossed an age threshold, and this moto/cycle stuff is all in my head…

I camped an hour’s ride out of the city (that's like, far) half way up an Alp, not thinking in the slightest that my keep-going-higher approach to finding a spot would have any adverse consequence. By morning my tent was cocooned in four inches of snow. It was so glorious a situation, so startlingly altered from the one I had left in sleep that my childish delight (SNOW!) instantly dismissed all concern about how on earth I'd get the machine out of the forest now when it had been so difficult getting it in. Later on, attempting to refuel, I discovered that my fuel cap lock had seized, or done the opposite, so that my key turned the entire lock instead of just the inside bits. Tiny detail, big problem. Less than the tank's dregs later I found myself oddly gladly in probably the last place to be when budgeting: a Swiss BMW garage. I did get a free coffee, wifi even, and waiting for the mechanic I sat and dwelt upon this chosen liminality. I don't aspire to the shiny new machines in the showroom, really not in the slightest. But I am starting to feel something for this old one. I don't quite cut it in the trendy Swiss bicycle café anymore. But I am still committed to snowy tents and riverbed campfires. My heart is on a bicycle, because I trust its goodness above all other tools, but here I am having the time of my life learning to corner without unrolling the throttle.

So it's experimental mode. In that vein I've been given a smartphone, my first, by my sister and brother in-law. It charges from an auxilary output on the dash, and amazingly (only to me?) provides an accurate GPS location on maps which I can freely cache at wifi coffee stops. In this way I know exactly where I am and where I'm going. I can even find the clearings in the forest outside town. Abstractly, I'm not sure how I feel about that. In practise it makes everything hugely easier. In fact those abstractly thoughts could interfere with this trip no end if I were to indulge them overly, so I'm trying not to. Similarly generous Seb gave me a helmet mounting HD camera, which I've been using to record my cautious Alpine cornerning. All of those recordings are a little large - I will adapt - so for now settle for the basic ones below. And yet another generous friend, Jason, gave me a last minute digital pocket camera, so I am equipped! And you are provided photographs, below. And a last call for generosity, my cousin Roy's mother in-law in Sylvia in Terlano, for food, board, welcome and rest, thank you all!

I covered 360 miles yesterday, out of the Alps and down along the Adriatic coast. Venice probably used to be charming, but I didn't take any photos there in case somebody charged me. Lots of motorway, fast, and then those occasional lulls, the edges of which you notice and momentarily wonder what's going on. Police vehicles like hawks in woodland, all around them quiet and careful. It seems to be a universal courtesy of the police on motorways to travel fractionally below the speed limit, so that everybody can creep past them and then return to their speeding and overtaking. After a couple of hours of that intense awareness, noticing, trying to notice every car, curve, camber and contour; all of the seams and splits in the tarmac; gravel, debris, fuel; anything that might upset the trajectory; all that is in front and all behind; after a couple of hours of this mental effort being met by so little physical reaction, only the merest rotation of the right hand, the tension coagulates into a hot knot in the shoulder. The day goes on, hundreds of miles of the world fly past and I continue to sit quite still, moving only that right hand. Anticipating almost everything, wondering about the things I've missed, often very aware of the mortal weight between neck and wrist, often oblivious. By the end of the day that weight has become a cramp from head to hand. Everywhere else is perfectly comfortable. It's funner than it sounds.

There were other bits I wanted to say but I've been in here ages and the sun's out in Northern Italy. About where I am, and where I'm going, Trieste, right on the Italian Slovenian border. I'll head for Ljubljana, Zagreb, see if Jack can arrange me a bed in Belgrade again, and then across to Romania. Arbitrary, but I've not been there before. Homewards, there is family in Innsbruck, and friends near Stuttgart and Ghent. 

first night on road

don't get it


continental breakfast