After biking 225 miles down the Danube in Austria and bushwhacking various bandit campsites along the river, I now have the benefit of regular showers and meals. The downside is losing the privacy of my soggy pup tent, which means sharing hostel rooms with up to seven strangers.
As mentioned in previous columns, Im fulfilling a lifelong dream of traveling around the world -- close to the edge -- starting out with Europe on a bicycle. So far, Ive biked up the lush coast of western Ireland and from sea-to-sea across England; then down Der Donau, as we call it in Austria -- about 700 miles.
Ive been traveling on a 20-year-old mountain bike named Dulcinea, heavily loaded with camping gear and a half-sized backpacking guitar. Weve made for a funny sight, like a rolling dragonfly with bulging panniers on the sides and the guitars neck sticking far out the back. The only thing funnier has been my mangled attempt at the German language, which always got a laugh out of the stand-offish Austrians.
Bike mechanics in Traverse City scoffed at the idea that my old junker would ever survive such a trip. Yet Im happy to report that Dulcinea seems to have gotten stronger as the miles flew by and took on a sense of personality. Im planning to donate the bike soon, when the backpacking portion of the trip kicks in, but will sure miss the old horse.
Im the first to admit that this trip is terribly self-indulgent, but as the great Eric Burdon once said, Its my life, and Ill do what I want, so please accept a few observations from a wayfaring stranger:
My ride is a measly affair compared to that of an Irishman I met who is biking to Croatia, where he says, the women are beautiful, or that of a British couple in their 30s whove spent the past six months biking thousands of miles to Turkey and back through Romania.
Ill never knock McDonalds again. Ironically, the burger giant has been the only place in most countries that I could count on to get a salad. You really crave salads after a steady diet of fish-and-chips, shish kebab, or the stuff that passes for pizza over here.
Do you fear foreign travel? And well you should, because Ive been robbed several times by the Exchange Rate Bandit. The plummeting dollar is worth only 60 cents against the euro, and only about 50 cents against the British pound. It can also be staggeringly expensive here -- a cup of coffee in Amsterdam cost me $6. But there are paradoxes as well -- a bottle of wine in Austria cost less than a can of Coke.
The costs havent kept Americans away though -- I meet my countrymen at every corner, including riding far out in the country. Its always great to hear an American accent and say howdy.
To cut costs, I stay in hostels, which run around $25 per night to sleep in a small room, packed with bunkbeds. Often, women and men share the same rooms, which makes getting dressed a bit ticklish. You meet everyone from old guys in suits on business trips, to Asians traveling to new jobs or colleges in Europe.
Its kind of fun in a goofy, Boy Scout camp kind of way, as long as you dont expect to get much sleep -- especially if your bunkmates are a bunch of giggly, drunken teenagers who have a knack for turning up at 3 a.m.
Biking through Europe has made me realize how lucky we are as Americans. Most of these countries have none of the roadside parks or restrooms that we take for granted, and even an old stone hut can be a private tourist attraction that costs $5 to visit. In much of Europe, there is literally no public property -- even the wastelands belong to some lord or royal family. True, the big cities all have parks the size of airports, but these are usually the former hunting grounds of kings that were seized in violent revolutions. Out in the country, there is little in the way of parks or campgrounds for the common person. It makes me proud of Americas public parks and sharing spirit.
On the other hand, the Europeans sure have some sweet bike paths, and it was a thrill to cycle all around London, Amsterdam and Vienna. The Danube Cycle Way was broad and smooth, taking me along the pearly river through mustard fields, vineyards, orchards of sticky-sweet fermenting apples and 800-year-old villages.
But all that is behind this city rat now as I push on by train to Krakow, Bratislava and a jump-off point into stranger places from Budapest, Hungary. Within the next few weeks, I will be in two of the largest cities in the world, with populations of 20 million or so. Will let you know how it goes...
Robert Downes is on a four-and-a-half month trip around the world. Look for more foreign dispatches in upcoming columns.