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Africa 420 – Romania 1

Turkey – Bulgaria – Romania 30/07 – 02/08

We knew the drill. We had a killer time. We came, we saw, we hung with the people, we went to bed late, we forgot to stay with the programme. Next morning our mission was to cut across central Turkey, from Cappadocia to the Aegean coast. Too tired, man, I gotta hit snooze, again.

Enter the Turkish tea, a perfectly brewed solution for the un-frisky.

The road from Nevsehir to Kayseri was once dotted with Hans (travellers’ rest houses) and was part of the Silk Road. It doesn’t look that offerable today, so we pushed on to Konya, the most conservative Turkish city. It was a long day. As we started to climb the central plateau, the landscape became sweeter, the rolling hills rounder and the bees on sunflowers buzzier.

In Romania we are fed up with the tasteless Turkish produce that have been flooding the market. Listen to this, my fellow salad munchers, do not mistake that sorry-ass tomato you buy in Bucharest or Cluj for the real thing. Which is what the hard working Turkish farmer grows, and what the Turkish man eats. We soaked in the images of peasants caring for their crops, tools in hand, like they’re supposed to. And in Afyon we lunched on their tasty yield. A simple snack of tomatoes, olives and figs. Everyone was lining up to get their freshly baked Ramazan pidesi for the fast-breaking iftar meal. This traditional flat bread with a characteristic grid of puffed up pockets of dough is a staple of Ramadan. The Afyon variant is 80 cm long and super thin. A hefty compliment to our meal.

Turkish produce is regional: we rolled into the sour cherry country, so we bought a handful of organic dried fruits sold streetside by a green-eyed lady. Sometimes our foodie ‘compulsions’ push us to the more interesting stories that food so often tells. Frankly, after so many food-centric reports, this time we couldn’t be bothered. It was about time to find a decent camp spot.

It was a home-run. Our free-spirited attitude landed us in deer country.

We felt the soft wind on our face, saw a giant sun set behind the hill, knowing it was again one of those raw, unfiltered experiences we’ve grown accustomed to feed on.

It has been incredibly freeing to move across vast distances for months. To claim our spot for the night, to FEEL that energy that keeps it all together, to experience rain, wind and sun. We’d never felt so alive, so in the moment! On that hill, with those golden grasses shedding smells of summer, and with those unseen beasts scavenging for food throughout the night, we needed nothing more to be happy.

Morning came, and a countdown started. Plan was to do the final leg to Bucharest via Bulgaria – within the pinch-yourself parameters of one day. That would leave us with one more night on Asian soil, ‘so let’s find ways to pipe in some adventure’, I promised, knowing how important that was for my girl. Sometimes, though, adventure looks for you as much as you look for it.

First, we arrived in Izmir, and because Turkish infrastructure is so complex and we were using a map taken from a notebook, finding the right exit to the seaside town of Çesme was an overkill.

Izmir itself looked neat and trendy, a nice place to stop and sun-gaze. Which we did, along the waterfront.

Nerding-out on the enlightening thought of the day, we must have looked a bit lost in traffic. Not a bad look, I’d say, because it led to good stuff. Two dudes on a moped approached us and asked if they could help with directions. We were fine, thanks. Shouldn’t we all celebrate that fact with some lunch? they said. Adana kebap? Kebap is nothing special – but this south-eastern Turkish variety most definitely is. Hand-diced hand-sculpted, juicy. Half an hour later we were all dissecting our respective samples in the laid back office of Mehmet, together with his buddy, Tümer.

It turned out that Mehmet is a mechanic and enduromaniac. One day we hope to cheer him as ‘Romaniac’. We spent a few hours with the guys: both totally into bikes and totally in sync with what we dig as well. Check out more pics here.

They asked how have I changed as a rider and how have us both changed as human beings. It is easy to answer the first, because no matter what I’ve done before, how many wheelies I’ve pulled and what bikes I rode, the great outdoors has had the biggest impact on what I can do now, and what I want to do next on two wheels. The latter question I love: we could spend days answering it. But I’m not going to do that now. Two years ago the sidewalk near my place had petrol from my Yamaha all over it, and I was taken by ambulance. 14 months ago we were stuck in the middle of an Italian highway with a broken car filled with my Yamaha and too much luggage. Life travels by so quickly.  We are both so happy and thankful that we were able to complete this journey. It was all I could think about for a long time and something once we both couldn’t dare to set out to do. If you too dream of adventure, do it, there’s never a better time than now.

Lunch done, ready to go. ‘Do you need anything done?’ said Mehmet in a classic ‚why the hell didn’t we think of that’ fashion. Why not discard the shredded Heidenau?

We ended up sweating buckets just to pull the tyre off the rim: that desert heat had baked it well. More biker friends and clients showed up, everybody wanting to participate, because people are so friendly here that any small detail like this is just a reason to stop and chat and make friends.

Time to leave these lovely chaps and hit Foça. Thank you from our hearts, guys, see you next time!

Foça is a quiet little town sitting on the tip of a peninsula. Because of the Aegean Sea, deep blue stretches up to the pontoons of Eskifoça (Old Foça), where locals gather daily to bathe and hang out.

Many of the islands dotting the bays and coves are actually extensions of the mountains on the mainland. Apparently the word ‚archipelago’ was originally used for them and the Aegean Sea!?

We found the small beaches and the coastal area too dirty for something that is supposed to be under some sort of environmental protection, so we went back to the old town for the sunset. The sinking sun made us think of Namibia, where we had experienced the most glorious skyscapes, and we wondered ‘what are our Himba pals talking about right now?’, ‘who is Vital drinking with?’, ‘is it cold in the Namib?’.

It was time to feed ourselves. By night, the old town is even more romantic.

The fishing harbor had filled with people, mostly tourists, who strolled  about and dined on the local staple: deep fried calamari and stuffed mussels.

The fishermen were also enjoying their meal right on their boats, and I must say that looked more tempting than the regular seafood joints. A man was selling some unidentifiable snack on ice: fresh almonds! The last bite before pitching camp on a glass’n beer caps littered beach.

Have you watched ‚A Nightmare On Elm Street’ as a kid? In one of the installments of the francize, there was a scene when Freddy Kruger thrusts his arm with blade-covered fingers through wallpaper, nullifying the threshold between real and imaginary. We were sound asleep when the wind became our nightmare, and a snapped tent pole our Freddy. The pole ripped through the outer layer, waking us up. Wind took over. First we were too sleepy to think clearly and we tried to keep the tent in place with rocks. It only caused another part of it to break. Then we tried to remove the structure and sleep inside as it was. The noise itself was more unbearable than the feeling of fluttering fabric against our face. So we pulled our mattresses out, and slept like we used to on the Romanian seaside during our teenage years.

In the background, three enormous caravans, inhabited by three Italian retirees who had been living on that beach for a while. The morning view was splendid, and the wind softer. If only the beach wasn’t so appallingly dirty: on waking up I had to kick a used nappy off my flip-flops. Yikes!

We took a swim in the gloriously clear water, and moved on.

We had few kilometers of Asia left, before crossing in Çanakkale, the second Turkish city situated on two continents. Outside town there’s a replica of the legendary Trojan horse. According to Homer’s Iliad, this thing ended the ten year siege of ancient Troy (which contemporary scholars have agreed to place in the small village we passed on earlier).

The wooden horse from the movie Troy is also exhibited in Çanakkale: it’s an improved design. Next to it, the ferry docks, with boats crossing the Dardanelles strait every hour. To save time in the morning, we grabbed a bite and took the 10 p.m.: the town was vibey, the night was warm, but it was hard to be in the moment, our minds drifting to past adventures.

This journey has redefined how we see ourselves. I always thought that riding my bike across Africa with my love would be awesome, but never imagined it would be quite as rewarding it has turned out to be. From the first month in Morocco to the last days spent in the searing desert, with a couple of life-changing events and a ‘team’ performance that exceeded even our most optimistic expectations, Africa gave us fourteen of the most remarkable months of our lives. We are now facing the challenge to build on the legacy of these months.

It was done. We were on the Gallipoli peninsula, back in Europe. We couldn’t spend the last night in the tent. For us it was symbolic, and sad. The tent had taken us thru thick and thin, and now it needed us to take care of it. There’s always a better way to do things, and we’ll get our chance. That had been our last sunset as nomads, but there will be another, if we do what’s right.

The Dardanelles looked more like a winding river than one of the most hazardous waterways in the world. At its narrowest it is hardly over a kilometer wide. We lingered by the waterfront while the super jolly waiter kept forking out an amazing breakfast: boiled eggs, white and yellow cheese, veggies, olives, simit (Turkish bagel), tea, jam, more eggs! (in the shape of menemen, a Turkish dish with onion, tomato and green pepper), orange juice, even watermelon. I don’t think there is anyone actually capable to eat all that, and indeed we never needed to eat again that day.

Our last stop before the border was Edirne (Adrianople), the former capital of the Ottoman Empire before Constantinople took over. After passing by it many times in the past, we were finally going to visit a masterpiece of classical Ottoman architecture, the Selimiye Mosque. It dominates the city, and at 83m its minarets are the tallest in the Muslim world.

But the genius of the architect whose apprentices would later design the Taj Mahal doesn’t shine in the monumentality of the exterior, but in the simplicity of the interior. The mosque and its complex of schools is an UNESCO World Heritage site.

At that time the dome of Hagia Sophia was the largest in the world  and Selimiye was to surpass it. Under an octagonal central dome the space flows  symmetrical, unsegmented, allowing the mihrab (which points to Mecca) to be seen from any location within the mosque.

Light floods this culmination of a lifelong search for perfection.

After the nerdy intermission, we crossed the first border in ages where we didn’t need to remove not even our helmets. Suddenly we were surrounded by familiar things. We had crossed Bulgaria without stopping many times before, but always in the night, so we were not aware it looked so weirdly similar to Romania. Except for the language and obviously for the Cyrillic alphabet, nothing felt foreign, not even the people. We bought a map from a gas station and set out to cross this strangely ‘Romanian’ country as fast as we could. Dusty provincial towns, dilapidated roads, a ski resort on top of a mountain, and coffee in a gas station just like the ones we had designed and built what it felt like ages ago. It was a surreal afternoon, progressing to an inevitable that we somehow imagined and knew, yet didn’t perceive, nor were we sure about. To be the same people we could not pretend we were, but did we hope to find significant, or should I say ‘satisfactory’ change at our destination as well? There was only one way to find out:

On that last stretch before Bucharest we had a lot on our minds. Traveling, vagabonding we had reached far and wide, we had achieved freedom. Instead of imagining how things might be, we were so lucky to see them as they are. We were humbled by nature, blown away by its wildlife and touched by the kindness and limitless generosity of total strangers. The question now is where it all goes from here. Do we look back, and say: ‘Well that was wonderful, but it all will kind of go downhill from here?’The sun set over Romania, and it was just as beautiful as elsewhere in the world.

My mom was waiting for us in the empty apartment where one room contains our previous life packed in cardboard boxes. Ana opened the garage for me. I parked the bike and removed the camera. I was on cruise control, exhausted, not really registering what was going on.

Even now I struggle to remember those details, and I fail. I knew every molecule of that outside, but not the quiet cataclysm unfolding inside.

Ana’s parents were on the train, and when they arrived, we had already tossed the smelly gear and showered, as if we had never left. I saw the poster Ana had made for me in 2010, when I arrived there from Germany, soaked and shivering with cold, but a victor on my first Tenere, the one that should have taken us to Africa.

I noticed that Ana’s mum had made a note for us saying ‘welcome back!’

An hour later we were hugging more people and choking with more emotions. We had missed these people, as they had missed us. But the love that connected us survived the distance. So why shouldn’t you, dreamer of the open road, fear to follow it? We risked our significance, and we’ve grown, we became better. We challenged ourselves, and it stretched our limits. We’ll never regret it, and we do not regret that the adventure is over for now, because, as our friends wrote on this quirky [highlight color=’#393939′ background_color=’#ccff00′]trophy [/highlight], the reality and the happiness of the next ‘round’ depends on us.