06 December, 2014

84 Days Later

After the bleak highways of Florida I was ready for some fun, and Puerto Rico was certainly that. I've only got a few Spanish words in me but it turns out I needn't have worried as the vast majority of Puertoricans, and all the youth, are bilingual.

I rocked up at the bus stop outside the airport and immediately made a friend - Dexter from Hong Kong. It turns out we were waiting for the same bus, changing at the same stop, staying at the same hostel and sleeping in the same room! We stopped short of sharing a bed. The 'Island Time' hostel was in a word, epic. Cheap as chips and about as much fun (and people) as you can cram in a three storey building.

I won't name names, what happens in PR stays in PR, but what ensued was basically two or three (the finer details escape me, ok!) raucous nights of rum and giggles and ridiculous dancing. Them locals can dance but don't worry, I bought them crashing down to earth with my air lasso and hearty renditions of 'the canoe'. For Queen and country!

Aaaaanyway, I spent the next few weeks marginally more civilly (perhaps!) with a fantastic friend of mine who came to visit. Breakfasts were eaten, coffee supped, streets strolled and islands hopped. Old San Juan was very pretty and quaint and there was some brilliant art in the 'ghetto'. We camped on the beach in Fajardo which was extremely beautiful, watching suns rise and set along with several thousand glutinous mosquitos.

Days were spent exploring land and sea, nights exploring sparkling skies, lying on sandy beaches enjoying the nigh on orgasmic sensations of scratching that malarial itch. Hiring a moped on Vieques island was a personal highlight, buzzing about looking gay (or European? A classic holiday game) for twenty four hours. We blitzed the poor gal up hill and down dale, off road, broke the ignition briefly and lost the keys on a huge sandy beach. All in a days work for Captains Calamity & Catastrophe!

Onto the US Virgin Islands now via the most rickety flying vehicle of my life (and I once tried to fly from a low tree using plywood wings). It was a ten seater and I was about 70cm away from the pilot who was extremely relaxed, to the point of spending most of the flight writing a shopping list and doing a crossword. He said he was logging the flight path information but I know his game!

375 year old Ceiba tree.

The view was heavenly (see what I did there?), in no way justified by these pictures, and made me want to get a pilots license. Being suspended in a hundred shades of blue and gold, not knowing where the sea ends and the sky begins, in the belly of a metal eagle - it was special. 

So I'm here now, in my little shared cottage with rainforest sounds at the window and mosquito netting my sky. I'm doing some gardening work and general help to cover my board and in the meantime sweating around by foot or bike, seeing what's to be seen. So far - Rastafari, trees, horizon, beach bars, coral, aggressive barracuda, hillocks, tortoises, a new born turtle running for salty safety (best day ever, he made it!) and much more.

Chrismukkah is going to be a jolly bizarre affair here and I'll be sure to take plenty of snaps of me sunning myself on the beach.

Have fun... Planet Earth!

05 November, 2014

For richer or poorer...

As a brief introduction I want to mention two absolute dudes I met yesterday outside the airport, the two Robins (no Batman). I was crossing the flyover and spotted them camped out on some grass, shoes off, eating and fiddling about with a trumpet. They were two German jazz musicians who'd been travelling about and busking in New Orleans and are now heading to the Amazon Rainforest! 

They shared their oats with bacon, coffee and whiskey and we merrily swapped stories for an hour, sitting next to the airport terminal with taxis streaming past. It was such a pleasure! We parted with handshakes and grins all round.

Arriving into one of the world's richest nations straight from one of it's poorest yesterday was a shock. I'm couchsurfing with a great guy, Mark, who speaks five languages and is a fascinating man, until Friday. His place is exquisite and he is so generous! Anyway, he asked me what were the differences and yesterday I could n't immediately tell him. Today I've spent my time wandering through some of the wealthiest streets I've ever seen, brimming with lanes of supercars and SUVs and canals of superyachts. 

The money on show is frankly crass and jolly un-British! I find it quite laughable. I've stepped from the land of frugality where even water is rationed because you only have one bucket and using more would mean walking a few miles to collect and carry it on your head. To the land of excess where your drink is refilled relentlessly without question and you better drink it because more is better! 

Everywhere you see status cars and life improvement purchases - this yacht will make you happy, this house is what you need, get a bigger pickup truck than your neighbour. But I've also noticed something... For all this expenditure in the name of fun no one seems to be having any. Since I've been in the US I've heard perhaps a couple of people laugh and share a smile, that's it! 

Haiti, stricken with poverty and in need of aid is a bubbling pot of chiding and bantering and grins. I think happiness is having a smile on your face every day for whatever reasons, silly or childish, and all this 'stuff' isn't working. I don't buy it! 

Maybe it's time that 'rich' society took a lesson in having a laugh from our un-moneyed cousins.

02 November, 2014

What is money?

Now here's a  question- how much of your income do you spend on essentials? By essentials I mean water, food, basic housing requirements, sanitation, education. I am confident it isn't 100% of your earnings, so you have a pot of disposble income to improve the quality of your life? Good for you, you work for it, you deserve a treat or two.

All I ask is that maybe this week, when you treat yourself to a glass of wine, a bar of chocolate, a massage or a manicure, would you donate the equal value of that to a good cause?

£400 per year is all it will take to give Wood one of life's essentials, an education.

Together we have already raised 30% of the amount needed to make this happen.

So, what does money mean to you?

Help Wood now - DONATE

24 October, 2014

Enjoy the trip!

Dear one and all! I've been doing a lot of writing in the last couple of months and I thought I may as well publish some of it. You never know, people might like it! I have loads of content but perhaps the most interesting is the stuff I've written since I left Sadhana, the reforestation project, two weeks ago. I decided to walk along the south coast and do some camping, cooking for myself and generally being free for a bit. It was fun!

Also, I'm so pleased to announce that the fundraising for Wood is going amazing! Please check it out and support it here.

... The thrum of a hummingbird in flight is indescribably gorgeous to witness but I will try. It's somewhere between beautifully delicate and impressively industrial in it's character. I was blessed to have one centimetres above my head I thought, at the time, eyeing up my glistening forehead for a drink. In reality she was hovering over her nest on the tip of a cactus, 'standing' guard.

I set off after dawn on Saturday, and it seems like an age ago. The solitude has gifted me huge expanses of time and pleasure, each minute hours of joy.

I was awake at 3:50 raring to go but perhaps a little keen as revellers were still chanting and stumbling home. Naturally I then drifted off and missed sunrise. It is a hot one and I'm sweating profusely already before half seven. I am determined to get further than my previous expedition before setting up camp, so I am retracing my westbound route for 3-4 hours. 

I stop regularly to cool off in the sea and rest my shoulders often. The pack seems hellishly heavy now, with 10 litres of water, pan and other items hanging off it. The cliffs are undoubtedly beautiful but seem duller today. I know it's only my mind striving for more, further, better. I push on.

Finally I pass my previous furthest mark and gleefully advance into cactus canyon, a little too hastily. Ten minutes later and I am dripping with sweat under the relentless spotlight and blood under the ruthless cactii fingers. This place is a cauldron of mindbending repetition and panic but I don't allow myself to. It is bloody hot though and I am advancing through walls of thorns without slowing at this point. 

I need any form of shade and to get this pack off me, but the plants are packed so murderously tight I cannot even squat in their slithering shadows. There is no breeze.

I bumslide down an outrageously sharp rock face and finally I'm out of it. I decide to stick closer to the ocean's side from now on, where cactii are fewer and walking is simpler!

I make a fire in the beach and cook lunch under the shade of a sheet I rig up to savey skin (and bodily fluid) from the glare. Salty sea driftwood spits horribly, in case you're interested. I swim read and make myself do a mental cliff drop of about eight metres which scares me senseless. I touch the top of a jelly fish the size of a football which terrifies and fascinates. It later stings me, bringing me up to four wasps stings and four jelly stings. It won't be the last! Haha.

That evening I drink a hot chocolate on the rocks and share the sunset with a lone bird who's silhouette clips the tops of the waves. To bed.

I wake to pain in my nipple, foot, and the crunching of stones. A man with a blazing torch is curiously poking at my ashes outside...

09 October, 2014

Help a Haitian get an Education

This is Wilner Rébéca, Wood to his friends. Wood is 25 years old and lives in Anse-a-Pitres, a large village on the south-east coast of Haiti on the border with the Dominican Republic. He speaks Creole, French, English and some Spanish and is a super positive, friendly guy.

Here in Anse-à-Pitres the houses are woven shacks clothed with rags or clay, the occasional unfinished concrete structure making an appearance. Water comes via a concrete channel which splits evermore scarcely and is dammed by rancid clothes and leaves. Food is, more often than not, US supplied rice and beans with a smattering of vegetables. Money earnt at sunrise is spent by sunset. In short - Haiti is a trap.

Until two years ago all Wood wanted was a way out: "Haiti is a poor country and there are no jobs here. When I am old and I can't work physical jobs anymore, what will I do?" 

But now he has a different stance: "To leave Haiti would be like seeing someone starting a fire, a fire which will harm many people, and just walking away." Wood wants to give back and help his people because, as he rightly says, Haiti has a lot of problems. His aim is to help through law, and for this he needs a degree.

His university of choice is in the capital, Port au Prince and the cost is 20,000 pesos a year, around £260, and he will need to cover the costs of supplies and transport. So we need to raise £400 per year to send him to university. And yet the ability to earn that kind of money here is extremely difficult. To do so whilst attending school every morning and studying at night - an impossibility. I am, with your help, going to get Wood to university.

I have never been one to mindlessly promote things I don't fully condone. The fact that I'm writing this is proof that I completely trust and believe in this man. He is undoubtedly very intelligent, we are the same age, and yet he is being held back only by the circumstances he was born into.

Yes, it's only one person. Yes, the problems are huge and far reaching here. But every journey starts with a single step and I won't be cowed by the bigger picture. I'm not asking for huge donations, I'm aware that people are barraged with monetary requests these days, but understand this : If everyone who reads this gives between £2-3 we can fund Wood through four years of law school.

How amazing would that be, what we could achieve together! An amount of money which can't even get you a cup of decent coffee in England will transform this man into a lawyer. A lawyer who can change things here. 


26 September, 2014

So here I am.

In Haiti. It is a bit of a scene change, I admit. I'd like to say it's been my life's dream realised coming here but in reality I just decided in the space of a few months to pop over for a laugh. I decided to keep the blog as the title remains remarkably apt, although the headers will now be a bit less egocentric and bikey (thank heavens!) Apologies in advance for the lack of pictures, I have no method of putting then up from my phone here at the internet cafe.

I'm over here volunteering at Sadhana Forest which is (durrr) a reforestation project. We have a nursery , tree growing plots, compost bogs, new age sleeping arrangements and oodles of positive Chi. Mornings are spent rising at dawn (snigger!), limbering up in a happy circle, planting trees here or in the community and then trying not to eat small children on the trek back for breakfast. We often then do a second work session before lunch. The afternoons and weekends are free for fanciful frolicking and active adventures of any kind, although getting things done at Carribean pace is steady!

As a holiday resort Haiti has many things to offer, the top three of which I'd say are:

1) Huge smouldering piles of burnt plastic and clothes (thanks America for the winter coats).
2) Copious tiny little black willies, flapping about carefree as you're bent down planting or innocently tying a shoelace.
3) The balancing of any and every household object on one's head, which appears to be the National sport. To date I have seen water (obviously), wood and charcoal, huge bags of clothes, several chairs, an upside down table with a set of pans on top and finally... A three piece DVD, CD and Video set. I'm not joking. I believe she was called Queen Sony of the kingdom of balancing heads. I offered up a "Hi Fi!" but was rejected.

My free time to date has been spent reading, meditating (oh god, I've become that guy), wandering and wondering. I've met some amazing people already, walked up a mountain, eaten lunch with some tree farmers and met "Papa Leon XIX", celebrity nutcase of the town Banane! I've spent 7 hours in a bus with Hispaniola music on full whack, and ridden concho moto taxis at ridiculous speeds with no helmet and no worries. The highlight so far has undoubtedly been changing the compost toilets though.

Idiocy aside, the poverty here isn't that lol. Foreign importers have basically molested the economy into submission and continue to maintain and control it in such a way, like a bullying big brother. Thousands of fizzy drinks are sold here for 15 pesos (around 30p) and the bottles are strewn everywhere. How terribly lazy of the people you say? Well if you don't have bins, recycling or landfill where do you put the waste? On the ground. Most mornings the sweet scent of smouldering litter can be smelt from my bunk as the people burn litter en masse. It's a rock and a hard, polluted, smoky, ash ridden place.

The water supply comes from a UN built concrete channel which diverts from the canal and splits more and more from source. If you are far down the line, poor you. People argue over water, redirect it using leaves and rancid clothes to block neighbours channels, and everyone washes themselves and clothes in them. Yesterday I saw an adorable little girl in an old, torn Alice in Wonderland outfit put down the cardboard boxes she had collected for kindling, squat down and pee in the channel. This is real life.

13 July, 2014

She's cheating on me but I still love her.

To me, there seems to be two types of people – preservationists (the normal ones) and visionaries. When preservationists are uncomfortable they back away, looking for the quickest way to a nicer existence, which is downright sensible. Visionaries are those people who search out meaning or reason in the discomfort. “This will make me stronger for next time”, you know the kind I mean. Somewhere along the way I lost my vision.

Cycling is so akin to a relationship it’s uncanny sometimes. She’s a gorgeous mistress but my god a tiring one; all lips and hips and cheeky looks behind people’s backs, only for you. You think. You make yourself believe she’s the one, but she’s fickle, and she's naughty. One day you’re chosen and you unite; fabulous, passionate, obsessive. Then one week later, less even, she cheats on you and you’re left staring wistfully up the road from the grupetto, lusting to be lucky once again.

I got sick of it recently. I wanted something more stable, for once, something safe. A passion that wouldn’t have me fretting every minute of every day. Something that would reliably give me satisfaction, on a fairly logical basis. So I thought anyway.

Then I realised, the incredible times are just great, the great times only good. The lows aren’t so nauseatingly profound but I would rather feel dreadful than nothing at all.

There will come a time when I will succumb to the real world and my wrinkles, but it’s not now, not yet. I don’t ever want to settle. For now, I'll stay cycling's illegitimate mistress.

25 May, 2014

One Day I'll Look Back On This and Laugh, from the Counsellor's Chair

We didn't have a race this weekend, which was a relief for me after being pretty violently ill last weekend. I finished the first stage of the tour last Friday and then spent the entire night spewing into a toilet. I haven't been ill like that for about ten years and here's to hoping it's at least another ten before it happens again! 

Anyway, that put a premature end to my tour. I'm not usually finished that quickly, I promise... Since then I've had a helluva week, trying to get back the 3 kilos I lost, and feeling like an all round champion of life. Spirits have been high!

So this weekend was just a team time trial training camp, which turned out to be quite difficult. This is because we have a very important TTT next Saturday for a round of the Coupe de France. Yesterday was repeated 3km efforts up a climb, naturally, in the morning followed by 6km efforts up the same climb in the afternoon. I didn't vomit again, but a couple of the others did, which speaks for itself really.

Today was a 66km 'race simulation' which meant skin-suits, race wheels, proper warm ups, the full whack. I helpfully decided to simulate some potential worse-case scenarios for the guys like having no front brake and nearly crashing, and my gears ceasing to work (three times). My aero helmet also fell to pieces, so I had to chuck the aero lid bit in a ditch after 5km. It really was laugh or cry stuff! After my third gear malfunction I got back on and did the last 12km with the lads. My legs felt a world better than yesterday but that is speaking relatively, of course. 

This week I plan to re-find my mojo, pronto, because currently I'm dancing like a puppet without any strings. Until next time internet friends.


12 May, 2014

La Roue Tourne, et l'Essor Breton

My comeback race at Rouillon last weekend wasn't terrible, nor terrific really. I got myself into the break of the day, we got caught by a big counter group at around 100km in, and then my legs exploded. It's to be expected really after a few weeks without endurance, but it wasn't that jolly nonetheless! I crawled to the circuits, getting caught and passed by another group and then the peloton, climbed into the car and told myself I'd done my best.

Penguins have got the right idea.

Onto Thursday and Essor Breton, one of the most popular stage races in Bretagne. Smoothing over the rough edges like any good carpenter of life I'll breeze over Thursday and Friday because, frankly, I wasn't very good. I had some grupetto time on Thursday and on Friday I was abused by the GP Plouay climb six times and didn't fancy the uphill sprint.

Luckily I remembered the sun-cream. 

Saturday consisted of a team time trial followed by 96km in the afternoon: the French love a double day! The weather for the TTT was dreadful - a downpour, and the parcours was a leeeetle bit crazy. Narrow roads, fast technical descents, blind corners, a few sharp little kickers, a spattering of cobbles, of course plenty of wind, it had it all! At some point I did 76kph which is pretty darn rapid when you can see basically nothing through your helmet visor!

As a team we did a pretty good ride for our first TTT together and personally I was really happy because I had good legs! We didn't take any risks on the corners and were slightly ragged in places so to be 29 seconds down on EFC Omega Pharma (minimum rider height 190cm, minimum quad diameter 80cm) ain't too shabby really!

In the afternoon stage a split went early and having some knowledge of the roads because I lived nearby last year I caned it down a descent and rode across alone. We were later joined by more riders to make a group of 25 or so at the front: I was the only Nantais at this point. Queue sitting on like a boss! I nearly got put into a stationary motorbike by a combination of no signalling by the riders in front and some poor moto-marshalling but hey, all's fair in war (there was no love in this breakaway, trust me!). In the last few laps of the circuit the group had swelled after a counter attack arrived with Greek reinforcements, (thank you Pol!). Unfortunately we were both swinging a touch and I couldn't do much other than launch the sprint early to claw back some time on the few riders in front. It had been a short stage but the race was completely shredded with a new leader on GC and a lot of people dropped and abandoning.

Getting my arse kicked by the Plouay Worlds circuit

5:15am and the alarm beeps away merrily, but in fact I've already been awake for 45 minutes (thanks body clock!). I lollop to breakfast and proceed to pour a full cup of coffee down my crotch... wow, today is going to be a good day! The final stage was on Belle île so we had a two hour boat trip to get there, leaving at 7am sharp. You can imagine how high morale was in the rider camp even before a pretty sickening crossing! I did have to laugh though when, thirty minutes in as the sea got really rough and people were lurching for the sick bags, someone shouted "la sélection a commencé!". A lot of riders got shelled on that boat crossing!

Always positive me!

The stage was 160km, extremely windy and exposed and with some painful climbs included. Pol got up the road early doors (hero) so I sat back (sort of) and tried to hang in there. The legs were pretty sore and I was very close to being dropped several times. We passed the team vehicles six times that day, which is a horrible mental challenge, and a lot of guys just couldn't make themselves continue after being spat out the back. We also passed by a beautiful beachy cove with some quaint little boats bobbing at anchor and a few deck chairs just sitting there empty, mocking us.

Omega Pharma decided to absolutely smash a crosswind section on the first lap and words cannot describe the panic in the field: one line, a gutter, a wheel in front, a prayer in your head. Secretly you want a gap to go several wheels in front so that the pain can stop and it not be your fault. But no one ever says that. I survived, and two laps later the Dutch team Croford did the same thing again, and split the bunch. I was five wheels behind the split but it was now or never and I stuck it in the eleven and rode across alone. I was hanging twenty metres off the group in front for literally a minute. In a word: hell.

All events after this are a blur to me. My legs came 'good', relatively speaking, at around 100k in (about flippin' time!) and after many splits and regroups and catching Pol's breakaway group in front I found myself in a break of five riders with 20k to go. I did as little as possible as one of the riders was going for GC, before we were pulled back by the race leader behind defending his jersey. Another group went straight over the top and I marked it, clawing my way up to the wheel in a disgusting cross-headwind section. I did one turn and then sat on, because second and third on GC were here with a teammate each (in a group of six) and I wanted to win really badly. I played poker, trying to be a cool cucumber and await my chance.

I knew to win I would have to disconnect my brain for the final few corners, with 1k remaining. I attacked just before them on a little descent and went round those dodgy damp twists 'comme un fou', nearly losing it on a cobbled gutter and taking out a spectator. I hit the final 600m climb with maybe five seconds advantage and my body was shutting down, I couldn't really hold the bike straight anymore. I knew it was only 150m now to the line, and I gave it all I had. A flicker to my right told me it was lost, finished. Second place is ok, but a win is something else!