Riding Bikes

My world, it spins.

Monday, July 26, 2010


This blog will no longer be updated. Come visit http://www.dancorbett.ca

Saturday, May 22, 2010

New Year's Eve 2009

For reasons still unknown, I decided to leave the detail of travel to New York until the last minute. Coming up upon 36 hours until departure from Newark, I bit the bullet and purchased a flight from Continental.com; a serious assault on my conscience and Visa card. Not more than 15 minutes later, I received a hastily written email offering me a seat in an overnight ride to New York City. Like a fish out of water, I sprung to my keyboard and within minutes had all but eradicated the traces of my flight reservation.

Loudly preceded by their jovial ora, Amanda and Jenny pulled up into the driveway as I stood talking travels-past with the night watchman. We eagerly made friends as I tossed my guitar atop their bags in the brimming trunk and put my worldly possessions into the back seat beside me. Off we hurried, pausing only briefly to unearth my seatbelt from its hiding spot in the mechanical abiss that was the backseat.

We hurtled forward talking of school, work, travels, music and life – anything and everything plus everything in between. Midnight flapped in our windy wake like a tired flag while the kilometres fought and failed to keep up our determined pace. Not even the clutches of the border could detain us longer than it took Jenny (bless her German heart) to acquire what ended up being a mildly disappointing stamp to commemorate her innaugural voyage onto Uncle Sam’s mythical turf.

Full we steamed into and across the land of metric-no-more, eagerly racking up miles and counting down the minutes to our destination. An anonymous rest stop came and went, desolate in the thick of the night; our gas-pumping night-owl conscious of little more than the bite-sized virgin snow flakes dancing Newton’s ballet towards our heads.

Clouds blanketing the stars, we were suddenly surrounded by deep blue. Then purple, then red, then orange. And then the night bid us good-morning just as abruptly as the sun had bid us farewell the dusk prior. Then in all its glory, New Jersey appeared as if out of a dream; its marvelous, countless rivers of cars inching along the highway, barely covering a mile in an hour. Then finally the bottleneck, the rubberneck, the man who chanced that he and his truck were no match for winter weather. Alackaday.

The Lincoln Tunnel: long, skinny, underwater – just like Abe would have wanted it. Then Manhattan. Ceaseless, endless, careless Manhattan. The place practically screamed with life and the energy of its constituents. People filled the streets and danced about in an almost choreographed frenzy. It must have been New Years’ Eve.

Logistics a nightmare always, I found a safe place to stow my bag then began my aimlessly charged wander. Not on the prowl for 20 minutes, I happened into the presence of a young Italian, determined also to see what IT was all about. We queued futily for a tour of the UN then resolved to a subway trip and a bipedal wander of Little Italy (there’s something inherently comical about a thickly accented Italian proper asking directions to this place). We enjoyed wraps and espresso at Cha Cha’s Italian café, charmed little dive, walls adorned with photos of the countless celebrities that may once have considered coming inside.

As dusk took hold, Matteo and I strolled up Broadway and into Washington Square before spending an hour looking around Greenwich Village. We settled upon a previously recommended bar called Arturo’s. To my thrill, a hard-swinging unplugged piano trio filled the air with a sonic flavour so rich you could taste it. There at the bar we sat while a tuxedo-clad Antonio (Tony) served us no small number of generously poured glasses of red wine. An ever-evolving clan of delightfully cliché New Yorkers made for the most excellent bemusements two stray travelers could ever hope to absorb. A truly sensational, thin-on-the-crust, heavy-on-the-cheese margharita pizza made all the more excellent our arrangement.

Logistics again the backstabber, I left Arturo’s alone about an hour before the ball was to drop. With only a bit of hassle, I retrieved me belongings from the 42nd street station and stood intersect with 9th Ave., amidst an unexcited crowd of hundreds a half mile from, but within sight of Times Square. The bus was easy to find and the trio of overtime-embracing drivers gladly stowed my accoutrements onboard while we stood half a block away, waiting for the count down.

10... 9... 8... 7... 6... 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... "Heck yeah. It's 2010!"

"So it is," said one of the drivers, "happy fuckin' new year's." A shot from his flask.

The few hundred people walking around at 9th & 42nd made a handful of similar mumbles while one or two anonymous woooooos barely cut through the sound of traffic. Within less than two minutes, I found myself back on board the bus with a driver and one other passenger who was investing the vast majority of his energy into a cell phone conversation, the language of which I failed to identify.

All in a day's work. I slept continentally on a bench in Liberty International's first terminal.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fine day for a ride

I started cycling pretty seriously in 2005. I've had a few bike computers in the past five years, but none for long enough to confirm my estimate of having ridden about 35,000km in that time. Within all that riding, there's a number of specific single-day rides that I can vividly recall as being so enjoyable that I'd call them favourites. In fact, I have a top ten list. For now, just one.

Quite shortly after graduating from Humber College in '07, I made my first solo venture abroad. Whereto? Cuba. Naturally, by bicycle. With a bit of assistance from an Argentinian living in Toronto, I crated up my bike and flew off to a distant, enigmatic island; my backup plan no more thorough than a fistful of currency. With the possible exception of my final exam in tenth grade science, never in my life had I been so grossly unprepared for anything. The Cuban husband of my Argentinian friend picked me up at the Havana airport and after a fairly hysterical public viewing of me assembling my bike, set me aboard a bus bound for the town of Baracoa. Small, isolated, third-world, coastal towns don't come much more charming than Baracoa. I savoured every moment in time and every shot of rum I could in that town, but this is about a ride, not cocktails.

Preceding the ride, there were three major factors that gave me cause for concern. I had had past experience with mountains, but (1) the roads over which we traveled on the inbound bus were dramatically more treacherous than any I'd ever seen before. (2) The novel-to-me, oppressive, tropical heat promised to provide a truly punishing day of riding. I had told some locals in Baracoa of my intentions to ride for two weeks back to Havana. (3) "Eres loco, amigo," they would say. "Well, yes. I [am] a little crazy, but your allegations duly concern me."

Mildly deterred, I braved on for my first day's ride abroad; destination: irrelevant. The coastal nature of Baracoa allowed me about one kilometer of level road on which to warm up. From there, up into the Moa-Sagua-Baracoa mountains we (my bicycle and I) rode. At first, the heat did not disappoint. Quite quickly; however, we pulled into an eerie mountain morning fog, fairly thick in nature. Encouragingly, my fears of heat exhaustion were dispelled. The blessed fog acted as a gently refreshing blanket of mist, subduing the would-be need for sweat for the full breadth of the mountain range. The climbs were winding, steep, unprotected and, to an unacclimatized foreigner [insert:my smiling face], positively terrifying. This is something I've since come to appreciate in a way that few can imagine.

The fog thinned to reveal an overcast sky and despite the seemingness of inevitability, the mist never condensed into rain. The newfound visibility was most welcome at some of the outside turns as it revealed splendid views of vast jungle valleys. Classic cars were few and far between and each one more reassuringly than the last gave us, dear young boy and bike, more than comfortable space on the road. 

The road bumped and wound its way through the junglous mountains (mountainous jungle?) for most of our day, bringing about some interesting charms of a novel culture; roadside tree-ripe banana vendors not excluded. We rolled alongside crashing rivers, tantalizing cliffs, tree-climbing coconut farmers and even, much to the hollering amusement of rural chiquitos, rode right on through the infield of more than one asphalt baseball game. Untrained for mountains and fairly depleted nearing the end of a long day, we made our way up what would be the final significant ascent of the range.

Here and now, we pause for a double side note.
(1) Cuba is a strange land; one where the old and the new collide with unpredictable outcomes. In Havana, for instance, abound modern luxury cars, cosmopolitan youngsters and all other signs and symptoms of progress. Meanwhile, the further you travel from Havana (note Baracoa's position on the map), the further back in time you'll seem to slip. This can inspire confusion, hilarity, pity, enchantment, wonder and a myriad of other emotions to each individual granted the opportunity to witness it.
(2) To a truly passionate cyclist, there is something inexplicably joyous about seeing other people riding their bikes. I think most commuters, racers, couriers, Saturday-in-the-parkers likely don't understand that it gives me great pleasure to see you all out on your bikes. Without attempting to explain how one can too be a passionate hill-climber (a demented sub-caste of the truly passionate cyclist), even more joyous is two truly passionate cyclists crossing paths en ride.

The last climb dragged on like that final exam in tenth grade science. Struggle, we did. To persevere, we swore. And just as it felt as though we could take no more, just as we rolled atop that final crest, just as we started wondering whose stupid idea this whole thing was, we saw the light. Into focus came another young cyclist. A Cuban, entirely clad in vintage (presumably not for the sake of style) racing apparel, riding a vintage roadster, leaving his equally vintage-looking friends in his vintage-looking racer dust. He looked to be 20, but as though he'd just slipped into 2007 for a brief training vacation from 1975. His strength, his speed, his skill were clear. But clearest of all was his passion. Our eyes met and with a chuckle, we traded "hola"s as he promptly began his descent down the climb that consumed the previous hour of my life. His small peloton in tail gave me marvelous stares; the type one might come to expect as a ghastly untanned foreigner in a tight blue outfit riding a high-end, fully loaded bicycle through rural Cuba. "Allez, allez," I shouted, not knowing how to encourage their pursuit in Spanish. A truly magical moment, it was for me.

Refreshed and inspired (and finished climbing for the day), I gleefully began my 600m descent from the mountains. Miraculously, the sun came out to keep me warm for the otherwise chilly, high-speed plummet towards the Caribbean Sea. The final 15kms were pancake-flat along a beautiful stretch of coastline, adorned with dramatic bluffs to the right and a brilliant blue sea opposed. My legs screaming for mercy, we settled for the night at a beach near Imias, dreaming of rides to come.

Wow! Let's go for a ride!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro La Laguna is a fascinating place. A thriving small town on the south shore of the beautiful Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, it's a real magnet for tourists. The functional centre of the town is at the crest of an aggressive hill, 8 minutes' walk from the waterfront pedestrian village (affectionately known to locals as Gringolandia) where the majority of hotels, bars and restaurants can be found. 

The town's centre is almost exclusively the domain of locals speaking one of four Mayan descended languages. Surrounding the civic square cum basketball court are numerous well-stocked shops and a characteristic produce/meat market staffed by half a dozen aging Mayan women who amicably endure my efforts to speak Spanish, ever attempting to upsell me from just onions to chiles, cilantro, cocoa and beyond. Somewhat disappointingly, this part of town is much lesser visited by the throngs of visitors to Gringolandia just down the road.

Gringolandia is certainly not without its charms. Its network of narrow alleys and dirt trails is suitably navigated only on foot excepting the occasional bicyclist. The at first confusing network leads one past a dozen bars & restaurants, a handful of internet cafes, several places of paid lodging, and six (give or take) competing Spanish schools (not forgetting the predominant languages here). In addition to the scores of wayward travelers who oftentimes find themselves quite resistant to departure, there is a semi-permanent population of ex-patriots from several countries who, evidently, have elected not to leave. Salis si puedes (leave if you can) is another affectionate moniker for this wee pedestrian village. It should also be noted that despite prolific signage condemning the sale of drugs, difficulty has no strong ties to acquisition here.

In recent weeks, there's been a bit of an uprising in San Pedro. Members of the local evangelical church who, incidentally, seem to hold great sway over the police force, have been embarking upon nightly parades of Gringolandia, evicting clients en mass from each and every bar. The alleged violation is a cliché noise complaint, but I believe the reasons are rooted in a perception that bar-goers are pledging allegiance to the rosy old  man with horns and a trident. Resident foreigners argue that this practice of early closure (around 11pm) is illegal in a country where bars almost universally close at 1am. I too found myself dismayed at repeated early termini and (objectively, of course) questioning the validity of the complaint.

On my last day in San Pedro, clarity swelled. Around four in the afternoon the sounds of a musical ensemble commonly associated with the image of Che Guevera came a-thundering down from a hillside hotel room. To each his own, but when a gathering of inebriated tourists (4pm on a Sunday) can be heard from 500m away  hollering, “motherfucker” chorus after chorus, I find myself siding with the evangelicals. Just like a pendulum, suggests my friend K., San Pedro is upswinging from a period of bold bingeing and now it's time to purge. Para mi, Gringolandia is about due for a long stint in detox.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


At some lesser-visited corner of the earth, a convergence of land and sea has created a natural wonder of true magnificence. Quite simply put: it's a beach.

A winding, narrow road through a jungle of the densest and most tropical nature finds its end amidst a handful of bamboo huts; their proprietors selling samosas and coconuts, straws protruding. Your rickshaw having come to rest, you're instantly allured beyond by the soft roar of the breaking waves just a stone's throw from where you stand. Into the clearing, the beach reveals itself stretching in a wide arc to left and to the right. In either direction, it extends much further than you'd really care to walk.

You step on to the sand. It delicately caresses your feet and beckons you to take another step. So soft, it could very well have been the earthly inspiration for velvet. The beach slopes gently downward as you take twenty paces to the edge of the pristine waters leaving a solitary trail of inverted bare feet in your wake. The pillow-like saturated sand continues uninterrupted out to a depth much taller than you. Only after two minutes' swim do you notice the sandy bottom has morphed into a lush and lively coral forest teeming with fish most colourful in all their tropical charm.

Pushed back ashore by the gentle surf, the hot sun helps to quickly dry you of the (relatively) cool sea water. Intolerant of a sunny afternoon at the equator, you string up your hammock from a low-hanging branch of an ancient and truly curious-looking tree to bask in its generous shade. There on the threshold of beach and jungle you swing with the refreshing sea breeze, your palette cleansed by a periodic sip from your coconut.

An elephant's bellow cuts through the ever-present choir of birds from somewhere deep in the woods. Having bathed the entire island in two lifetimes' worth of vitamin D, the sun begins its slow slide into the horizon. Five kilometers of beach are now 'crowded' by some fifty people, here to bid the sun goodnight and watch the sky's rosy dusk glow blacken and fill to its brim with stars. The impossibly dark jungle tells all through an unthinkably loud chorus of crickets and other creatures nocturnal.

You make your way back along the beach, minding the risen tide. With each carefully timed crashing wave, the beach subtly whispers, "I'm absolutely perfect; thanks for visiting."

Perfect. But for one problem:

You're not actually here. :)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Italian Opera

Not lingering over Mike's departure, mom and I made haste on an afternoon train to Agra. We toured the be all and end of all Mahals, the Taj, as the sun struggled to cast its red rising glow through a hazy morning. Undeterred, the building and its environs emanated a glow all their own. The town of Agra, sparing a few very high end craft emporia, was much akin to a garbage dump in my eyes.

By the rails, Mike and I had been travelling in sleeper class. In short: persistent noise, astonishing filth and bodies numbering sufficiently for one to be rid of his memory of personal space. Mom and I, disappointed by 3AC (one class up from sleeper) booked a 2AC ticket to Agra. Over our 24 hour journey, the floors were swept and mopped (with disinfectant) no less than 4 times. Food and snack services from the stewards were almost as frequent as their visits to pick up our trash. The bathrooms (don't ask about sleeper class) were spotless AND stocked with toilet paper. Ready for our settlement, each independently illuminated bunk was boasting a stack of clean sheets, a blanket and a clean slipped pillow. Finally and most favourably, each sleeping quarter of four people (instead of 6, 8, 12 or some otherwise numbered bent capacity) was enclosed by a set of curtains offering to me a yet unseen standard of personal space and placidity.

Apart from a trip to the Taj Hotel bar, Mumbai came and went uneventfully. We backtracked by train to visit Nashik. My dear friend Nilesh (turns out Carnival Cruises is good for something) offered a bed and endless hospitality to mom and me for our three day visit to this lesser visited town of 1.6 million. Escaping the hotel/tourist arena for a genuine Indian family stay proved one of the most enjoyable parts of my trip.

I've come up with a simple sum equation. Here goes: Miami Beach + India = Goa. It's just that simple! Equipped with no certain expectations, our visit to India's beach bum mecca was surprising and yet totally familiar at the same time. America's urban oceanside grace has taken up roots quite flawlessly at India's west coast.

Just 16 hours to the south by train, Kerala sings an aria with little semblance to Goa's rebel yell. Kerala's endless aqua pura highways were nearly as serene as a paddly meander through the lakes of Algonquin Park (my home and native land).

A lot can happen in two weeks. Mom, probably well sick of the Hindu hustle, made her way back to Canada after a night's stay in Fort Kochin where Portugal seemed to be not so far away as I'd thought. I'm now inland, frolicking about the tea-green hills of Munnar, Kerala. Big things are coming...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

And then there were teen

Chitwan National Park in the south of Nepal was once a prime destination for nearly all touring visitors to the country. Crippled by political strife in recent years, the regional tourism industry is left with a number of beds that well exceeds the number of visitors. I felt quite fortunate to spend a few nights in our yet most luxurious accommodations for a price at par with the cheapest. Despite the rural location, our cottage evenings were sones from silent thanks to the raucous chorus of crickets and birds.

In spite of a truly debilitating stowaway in my stomach, my visit to the park was fairly enjoyable. A guided tour by dugout canoe and return by hike through the jungle gave us some close-ups of menacing amphibians and throngs of tropical birds, insects and trees. Seeing rhinos, wild hogs and deer from the back of an elephant was a novel experience. In reality, the most compelling sight was the posse of fifteen other elephants each diligently schlepping around four passengers and a jockey.

From the thick of the jungle, we bussed to Kathmandu. Ranked in the top ten least livable cities worldwide by the Economist magazine; it did not disappoint. We spent a few days in Thamel amidst an unnavigable maze of pirated DVDs, counterfeit climbing gear, and yes, more German bakeries. We took to the "trail" (loosest definition applies) by mountain bikes. We ascended 500m to overlook to Kathmandu valley and gaze upon a surreal backdrop of some of the tallest peaks in the world; Everest not excluded. Eluded us, did a Himalayan sunrise as we biked through mountain morning fog down unquestionably the worst road I've ever seen in my life (forget Nicaragua). After a day more akin to demolition than exercise, we returned to Thamel for a night before taking to the skies with Buddha Air in a country with one of the world's patchiest aviation safety records.

Not yet ready for shorts and t-shirts, Mike, Poppy and I soaked up the fog in Darjeeling. Surrounded by endless tea plantations strewn about sub-Himalayan topography, Darjeeling brandished yet another interesting component of the Indian populous smorgasbord. Local crafts, snacks and music hybridising Nepali and Bhutanese cultures was rampant in the stone town of steep roads and staircases. The cultural highlite was almost certainly our trip the the sticky-floored Inox cinema for a screening of Michael Jackson's 'This Is It'.

Missing a train was no problem for three high profile western tourists such as ourselves. We subtly hopped aboard the next oversold rickety convoy and slept soundly without interuption for the full overnight to Kolkata. Quite curiously, no bribe was necessary. Kolkata was a veritable festival of absurdity, boisterousness, chaos, and deluxe tourism smashed together into a cultural fruit smoothie. Endless markets of all descriptions of goods (and bads), the finest and filthiest tastes of Bengal, and even a really good rock n roll cover band - there was something remarkable about hearing Zepellin's homage to India's far North as performed by Indians.

With much less white-knuckling, Mike and I made flight aboard India's SpiceJet for an astonishing bargain of a flight to Delhi just in time for his departure to Australia and my mom's arrival from Canada - baggage excluded. The journey continues...