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timbuktu

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977

POSTMARK: Mali

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

When traveling in foreign lands, I search for the remote, the bizarre and the unusual. My idyllic quest thus led me to the ancient city of Timbuktu, “The Pearl of the Desert.” I yearned to venture there by “pirogue” (a wooden boat), but the Niger River in the present dry season was too low for water traffic. In Bamako, Mali’s capital, I met a pilot for Air Mali who gave me a free air ride to the edge of the Sahara.

Upon arrival I was captivated by a discreet and mysterious charm. For centuries Timbuktu has been a citadel of the Islamic religion. The many mosques and pyramid towers bear witness to various periods of its fabulous history. Poets refer to Timbuktu as the “Key to the Sahara,” a rightly name since to this day the city is a starting point of the most important Tuareg camel caravans transporting large salt tablets once a year from the mines of Taoudeni deep into the markets of black Africa. Timbuktu’s streets wind in and out like an elaborate maze. Large oval ovens dot the streets like ancient monoliths. Toward the top of each oven is a hole where the bread is shoveled in by long-handled flat spades. The bread is flat, but when clipped open it makes a pocket for stuffing in food.

Most of Timbuktu’s 7,000 inhabitants continue to live in the same windowless houses made of mud. Huge wooden doors with detailed carvings are opened by large central silver rings. The houses seemed more like fortresses; they are solid shelters against the “harmattan,” the dry winds that sweep in from the desert. The houses are refreshingly cool, making fine refuges from the intense heat of the Saharan sun.

So how do I know what the inside of those homes look like? Well, the people of Timbuktu, whether they are blacks, Berbers, Songhais or Tuaregs, are extremely friendly. While walking through the labyrinthine streets I was continually beckoned to visit families. Not many words were exchanged, but the eye contact and smiles compensated for the language breakdown. The most exciting adventure came when I visited an Arab household. We sat on mats on the sandy floor, speaking French and staring at each other. One woman dressed in black was beautiful with long black braids and high cheekbones. In a way she resembled an American Indian woman. I accepted an invitation for tea, then found myself being whisked up a circular stairway to a large room on the roof.

There were several finely dressed women sitting on richly colored carpets. Within 20 minutes, the entire room was crowded with females. At first I thought it was a spontaneous party for me, due to all the attention I was given. The host spoke little French so it was difficult to get the gist of all that eventually took place.  However, it was mostly a visual experience. When I asked if it was a “fete” (party in French), she nodded yes. A boy of about 10 was scooted into the room. His “boubou” was lifted revealing his naked body. With a slash of the lady’s fingers, I suddenly discovered that I had stumbled onto a circumcision ceremony.

In this part of the rite I attended apparently only women were allowed in the room. There must have been about 20 of us sitting on the floor. Soon one lady began beating a calabash gourd. Another lady began stroking an instrument in the way a violin is played. Her instrument was a small calabash with a long neck. The strings and her bow were taut cow’s hair. The melody was enticing.

A large black woman weighing at least 250 pounds stood up swaying rather delicately to the music. She turned toward me and began to make erotic gestures with her face. She rolled her eyes sideways, sometimes disappearing her pupils so that two white balls eyed me like an ebony ghost. She contorted her mouth in various directions reminding me of a camel chewing food.

She probably thought she was sexy, but to me she was a grotesque clown. Slowly she waddled towards me performing unmentionable gross gestures until her black bulk was practically sitting in my lap. Finally one sympathetic lady saw how dazed I was and ordered the creature to back off. Stunned as I was, I sighed in relief.

The next dancer was more enjoyable. Besides myself, she was the only other unmarried girl in the room. With a long silky veil this maiden began to dance very sensually. She gracefully swirled the cloth around her body and over our heads. She wore thick gold bracelets on her ankles and another pair above her elbows. She was in total harmony with the soothing music. In response, the ladies emitted shrill turkey sounds with their tongues.

The music stopped when the food was brought. The first dish looked like grass left in the bottom of a lawnmower after a fresh mow. It tasted like it too. The next round was delicious Arab couscous followed by a spicy meat sauce. The desert looked like a softball and tasted like stale cookie dough. The maid then came around pouring water over our greasy hands.

The dancing began again, but after two hours in that strange atmosphere I decided I had seen plenty. I had to say goodbye to each lady which meant a kiss on each cheek plus a light one on the lips. I carefully avoided the “black bulk.”

Dusk was approaching as I strolled to the edge of the town which is also the edge of the Sahara. A turbaned nomad mounted his camel, positioning himself on a saddle that looked like a miniature chair. With his toes he scratched the animal’s long neck making the beast rise in awkward grace. The setting sun silhouetted the harmonious couple as they rhythmically swayed westward into the sandy infinity.

Their poetic departure held me so spellbound that I could almost hear the desert winds whispering “Timbuktu” in my ear. Yet not even the: harmattan would reveal to me the secret essence of the enigmatic city. “Ah, Timbuktu, so exotic and mysterious!”

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977

POSTMARK:  Upper Volta   (Note:  Upper Volta is now known as Bourkino Faso)

By COLLEEN McGUIRE
I hardly had heard of Upper Volta before coming to Africa. I couldn’t even pronounce its capital’s name — Ouagadougou. But now its name, its land, the tribes and its culture are more familiar to me after passing 10 days there.

Upper Volta is as big as Colorado, but, unfortunately far less endowed in natural resources. According to the latest United Nations statistics, Upper Volta ranks as the world’s fourth poorest country. The average yearly income is $78.

There are about 20 different ethnic, groups in Upper Volta, with the Mossi being the predominant tribe. In other parts of Africa, I had seen facial scars, but never so elaborate as the Voltaig’s marks. Some of their scars were full circles around their face as if to frame their features. The Voltaig cheek scars penetrate deeply into their skin. On first sight, Upper Volta looks like a nation of battle-scarred gangsters.

Behind these abused faces lie characters as tame as their herds of baby lambs. The Voltaigs are always smiling and extending their hands in some of the firmest handshakes I’ve ever received.

My first stop was at Upper Volta’s economic center, a funny sounding town called Bobo Dioulasso. I hated arriving in a new town at night and cursed the chauffeur. It had taken exactly 24 hours to go only 300 kilometers. If he wasn’t making a Muslim prayer stop, then he’d stop just to rest for several hours. Passengers had no choice but to hang loose, too.

Before I could even orientate myself in Bobo, an African couple approached me and invited me into their home. As a matter of fact, I enjoy staying with families and experiencing their home life first hand, but the disadvantage is that I tend to be the numero uno focus of attention. Staying with Issaka and Tata in Bobo was a classic case in point.

I was excited because it was the first time I got to sleep in a genuine African hut. It was circular with a dirt floor and only a hard bamboo bed in the room. The ceiling rose to a point and gourds were hanging on the walls, not as decoration, but as kitchen utensils.

Within five minutes of my arrival the entire neighborhood knew a white was staying nearby. When I sat outside, an audience of at least 30 persons, mostly children, encircled me. I continued carrying on a conversation with Issaka and Tata, but could not help feeling self conscious of all my actions.

I only spent one night with the family because I didn’t have a visa for Upper Volta. So I had to rush to the capital to legitimize my presence in the country. I was unable to get an Upper Volta visa in Mali, because last year there was a border skirmish resulting in the two countries breaking off diplomatic relations.

Ouagadougou is a clean little city with broad treelined boulevards in typical French fashion. One of the main streets is called Charles DeGaulle Avenue.

Perhaps the streets just looked so wide because most of the vehicles were small French mopeds.
Mopeds are a pollution-free cross between a bicycle and a motorcycle. One gets about 250 miles to the gallon, which is ideal in this fuel deficient era. Upper Volta is experiencing a Third World version of energy shortage. People can’t afford oil or ovens, so they cook over a log fire. The major problem is that for 70 miles around Ouagadougou the brush has been depleted of wood causing their simple fuel sources to skyrocket in cost.

The Voltaigs really like Americans. I attribute this to America’s Peace Corps program. They admire our young American kids who serve two years in the villages helping build wells or plotting gardens. I met Tia, a volunteer from New York, who had just signed up for a third year in Upper Volta.

Tia was a great guide for me in Ouagadougou’s market. Normally, I’ll walk around the stalls and not have the slightest idea what all the strange products are, but she was familiar with most of them.

One unusual discovery we made was a “kirou touko.” This is a small fur-covered goatskin container that looks like a bobber for a fishing line. It cost 30 cents and was filled with “kirou” for another 20 cents. Kirou means dust and is a gray powder used as mascara. For another 10 cents we bought the nail that fits inside and is used for applying the makeup.

Ouagadougou, has several typical African characteristics, such as the tables set up in front of the post offices. A man sits behind the little desk, selling his writing skills. An uneducated native will sit down and dictate a letter he wants sent. Like a secretary, the writer writes all his customer’s words in first person. One African service I regularly make use of is the street side coffee stands. For about a quarter you get a big cup of coffee inundated with cream and a big piece of long French bread, hot and dripping with butter!

These stands still operate between noon and 3 p.m., siesta hours in Ouagadougou when most stores close.

Another typical African delight is the peanut butter, sold in the markets. Peanuts are a big crop in the Sahel countries, so fresh organic peanut butter is a natural result. It sits like thick soup in big bowls and the women scoop out portions for you.

Two strange things:
• Chunky peanut butter is not available.
• People think you’re weird if you spread peanut butter on bread. They use it as a sauce in cooking, but never in a sandwich.

When I left Ouagadougou, Tia gave me a ride on her moped out to the police station. All cities and towns in the African countries I’ve been to have barricades at the city’s limits. One must present identification, state your destination and reason for traveling, and, far too often, you’re subjected to searches. If you’re friendly with the guards, they tend to loosen up and not act as tough as they pretend to be. I turned on all my charm and they flagged down a ride for me. It was easier than hitchhiking.

There’s nothing overly special about Upper Volta. It’s a very calm, easy going, typical African country where everyone seems content. It’s not as fabulous as the cultures I saw in Mali, yet Upper Volta, simply because it is an African country, was still a worthwhile place to visit in getting to know this titanic continent.

First published by the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, indiana, 1977

POSTMARK:  Togo

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

After spending four months in the arid Sahel countries where the flat, barren land seemed to exacerbate the poverty, Togo was a refreshing descent into lush, green valleys and hills.

To be surrounded again by so much greenery was as thrilling as a thunderstorm after months of drought. On my first night, the golden sun set over the verdant landscape, turning the sky a hazy pastel purple. This watercolor effect convinced me I was going to love Togo.

Togo is a miniscule Francophone country 600 kilometers long and 50-150 kilometers wide. There are about 20 ethnic groups there, but the coastal Mina and Ewe tribes dominate the political and economic spheres.

Togo is developed enough to be comfortable and still retain an African flavor without being spoiled by an excess of Europeanization.

Lomé, the coastal capital, is without a doubt the most pleasant African city I’ve yet visited. Lomé is small (150,000 people), uncongested and still boasting an abundance of sandy streets. A capital city without skyscrapers tends to be casual. Lomé’s mellow vibrations are further enhanced by a beautiful unmarred beach which separates the city from the sea. Due to a fierce undertow, it’s dangerous to swim, but owing to a powerful and steady breeze, the beach is perfect for a sweatless sunbath.

Young Togolese girls really inject the country with an air of liveliness. They played this game where they formed a circle, chanted a little rhyme, and jumped outrageously high while simultaneously kicking out one foot. There seemed to be a leader to the game, but whenever I would stop and concentrate, they either got giddy or bashful or else started showing off by exaggerating their movements. So I ceased analyzing their antics and just admired their fun in passing. If these girls were interrupted, it was because they had customers craving their delicious street delights. From the sidewalk they, and their mothers, sold corn on the cob or roasted turkey. Almost every woman sold a sweet similar to peanut brittle, minus the peanuts. Each woman has her own special recipe, so it’s never as predictable as packaged candies.

The male street vendors peddled the native artisan supplies. Their stalls contained wood carvings, bronze statues, leatherworks and lots of ivory jewelry. These sellers idled their time by playing a game called “wari.” The wooden game board looks like a 12-hole cupcake tray. The holes are filled with beans that are transferred from cup to cup. I haven’t caught on to wari yet, but it sounds as intriguing as chess, since both games require all skill and no luck.

Some of my most memorable African experiences arise out of just wandering through the streets. In Lomé, I stumbled upon a highly energetic event. While taking a stroll I heard the familiar beat of African drums. Like a bloodhound on a hot scent, I followed the audio trail to where I knew lively action would await me. I peeked into the compound wall and uttered a loud, “Wow!” Overflowing from under a gorgeous tent were about 200 people rocking to the drum’s beat.

The tent was made out of at least 100 different African cloths measuring two yards by one yard. The fabulous patches, sewn together like a giant quilt, came from some of the finest bolts of material I frequently eyed on the second floor of Lomé’s grand market. Each piece of fabric cost about $3-5, so I was impressed with the costly size of the tent.

The way these people moved was incredible for such a simplistic dance. They bend their knees, lift their elbows out sideways, and give their pelvis a violent jerk. The essence of these jerks was a rhythm and soul that came straight from the gut. It was done in unison that made the crowd’s harmony mesmerizing. The dancers formed in concentric circles and the final inner circle was where the drummers delivered their intoxicating beats.

I asked someone what this party was all about. My mouth dropped with the reply, “It’s a funeral ceremony for an old lady who died.” I responded, “Wow! What a funky funeral!” I doubt if the guy knew what the word “funky” meant, but he got the idea that it excited me. He insisted I enter.

I was rather hesitant, because I assumed Africans didn’t want any white strangers at their native ceremonies. Soon my erroneous assumptions dissipated. Everyone urged me to dance with them. So I did, but with considerably less finesse than the earthy Togolese style. They all got so excited that I imagined maybe they were making fun of me. However, I was reassured over and over of their sincere and genuine approval, indicative by their garnishing my body with native cloth.

The final dance ended in a thundering crescendo of clapping, drumming, hollering and waving of cows’ tails. The ecstasy of the funeral confirmed in my mind that Africa is probably the most vibrant continent on Earth.

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An Historic First:  Greeks and Turks cycle together for peace, friendship and against global warming.  

Izmir, Turkey to Thessaloniki, Greece.  June 16-27, 2007.

I’m an American traveling on an Italian passport riding with the Greek team.  Read my daily reports posted from internet cafes en route!

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Day 1 : Report from İzmir

We arrıved in Chios on a boat from Piraeus landıng at 4:30 in the morning and waited until 8:00 to meet Vangelis Kastamoulas to join me for the boat to Turkey. Vangelis is a competıtıve racing cyclist, coming in second in Greece’s national cycling games. He arrived wıth an olive tree sapling in his hand for us to plant ın Izmir. We presented our documents at Chıos’ little port and passed through customs on to the boat that took us across the waters to Cesme, Turkey, a ride that only lasted an hour. At customs in Turkey the line was long and only one person manning the passport control booth. İt wasn’t really a line but rather people crowded around the entry to the window — Vangelis and I trying to manage wıth our bicycles whıch made it awkward to push forward without offending anyone wıth our tires.

Finally, I announced to those around me ın English to the European tourists and more shakily in Greek to the Greeks, that we are the Greek team arrivıng to Turkey for a peace ride wıth the Turkish team and to combat global warmıng — and İ held up the olive plant and told them this is what we will plant on Turkish soil as a gesture for peace and that our Turkish friends are waiting outside for us. The crowd enthusiastically stepped aside to let the Greek team (Vangelis and me) and our bicycles pass to the head of the ‘line’.

İ had produced flyers with the Turkish and Greek flags and a dove on them. One side was written in Greek and the other side in Turkish. It announced the event and specified how individuals in both countries could help reduce global warming by just walking biking or taking mass transit 10% more often— and that Turks and Greeks can achieve peace and friendship when they cooperate on this global mission — something like that. I handed a flyer, Turkısh side up, to the customs official and he gave me a warm smile and stamped my passport without hesitation.

Mustafa of the Turkish team pıcked us up and took us to a big park along the sea ın İzmir. There we met the other 9 or so cyclists ın their team and members of the local press, They had their Turkish biking jerseys on (wıth Turkish flag) and Vangelis and I put our Greek jerseys on (with Greek flag). A hole was dug and the olive plant placed in it and we gathered around to put soil in the hole: The press interviewed Mustafa ,Vangelis and me and we said words to the effect that we seek peace between the peoples and cooperation to fight pollution in the Aegean regıon and global warming. İ had learned how to say ‘Peace, Frıends’ in Turkish and when İ said them at the tree planting ceremony everyone felt very happy.

Day 2 : Izmir : 9AM

The 12 members of the Turkish team and the 2 members of the Greek team gathered in front of the historic clock tower. (The other Greek members met us at the border on Thursday.) The Greek consul to Izmir was there and seemed quite pleased that the Greek team was making a presence. I gave a Greek flag to Attila, a member of the Turkish team, and he mounted it on his bike alongside the Turkish flag. I was also carrying a huge earth flag on a pole which really announced our message: two peoples, one nature. The media also made an appearance and we were interviewed on television. They asked what Greece is doing about the environment and I put in a pitch for MiaFisi (One Nature).As we set off on the 120 kilometer ride to Dikili we were accompanied by a very strong headwind and a very hot sun. The group stuck together cooperatively. However, before even exiting the city limits of Izmir, our female companion. Timor. had a flat tire, but it was changed in no time.The Turks stared at us in amazement. Even one cyclist is a curiosity in Turkey. Imagine seeing 14 cyclists in one group! As we passed by I handed out our informational flyers to pedestrians who eagerly took them. Unfortunately, one driver was so distracted by this startling sight of 14 cyclists that he rear-ended someone at the traffic light!All in all, our first cycling day was terrific. The Turkish team stops a lot en route – about every 10-15 km – for tsai (tea), lots of eating, resting and of course, water.We arrived in Dikili about 5:30PM and made a splendid entrance with matching bike jerseys and lots of energy. Everyone took notice.

Dikili is a lovely, tree-filled town next to the deep blue Aegean sea. It has an inviting 40 km beach and an attractive town square. Since it is referred to as the “City of Peace”, it’s also an appropriate city for our first overnight! The mayor of Dikili describes his citizens as “pacifists”. Apparently this is due in part to their close and warm relationship with Mythilini (aka Lesvos) only 18 km away. (Needless to say, this is not an ordinary Greek-Turkish relationship.) Each year Dikili organizes a “Peace and Democracy Festival” and many Mythilini residents come. This small Turkish city is so committed to peace that the town’s park has a monument to former Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme.

Many past civilizations have left their mark on Dikili…Lydians, Persians, Romans and of course, Greeks. Aristotle lived and wrote some of his most valuable masterpiences 2400 years ago in the nearby town of Atarneus.

From a stage in the town square, Mustafa of the Izmir Bicycle Riders Club presented an impressive power point show and talked about the beauty of the bicycle – for health, for free transport, and to reduce carbon emissions. His presentation showed how peoples around the world – from Africa to New York to Asia – use the bicycle for work, commuting and leisure.

I hope that Mustafa’s illuminating show and our spirited presence have inspired the local people to see the benefits of cycling for their health, the planet and their pocketbook. At the end of the show the municipality presented us with a replica of the Olaf Palme memorial, a fitting emblem of our purpose here.

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Day 3 : June 18

Our peace cycling group left little Dikili today and continued to follow the sea to another small town called Kucukkuyu (”little well”).  The sun is so intense that  by the afternoon the tar on the road starts melting, causing pebbles to stick in our tires.  The winds also remain strong, making it difficult to cycle.

We ride single file as best as possible.   Three women among 12-14 men have difficulty keeping up.   Our Greek athlete Vangelis Kastamoulas began giving the females help by putting his hand on our back and pushing us along. This takes a lot of strength of course and this is why he is Greece’s #2 national cycling champion.   Nilgun, Timur and I starting referring to Vangelis as the Holy Hand.   “Where is the Holy Hand?” we would cry out.  Vangelis is riding a thin tire Fidusa road bike (manufactured in Rhodes),  unlike our fat tires.  So we have come to expect his assistance.

We have also become used to the applause and horn honking we elicit when we pass the farmers in their fields,  construction workers building buildings, town dwellers on the curb —- every where we appear to be a sensation in Turkey!   They read the sign on the side of the support vehicle saying “Izmir to Athens” and see the map with the route drawn and then a message about Greeks and Turks together against global warming.  We have had NO negative or even indifferent responses.  This is historical — it has never been done before so it is natural in this respect for the Turkish people to be profoundly interested.

Upon our arrival to Kucukkuyu, we were again met by the media photographing and interviewing us.  The mayor sat with us by the sea where we drank sage tea.  That evening the power point slideshow presentation was smaller but more engaging with Mustafa and the audience exchanging opinons, feelings and good will.

Day 4 : June 19

This morning’s ride was fabulous.  We hugged the sea to our left and cycled through an aromatic  pine forest  with very little motor vehicle traffic.  Yesterday we cycled 110 km and today we are looking at about 100 km.   At one point in the morning we climbed to  290 meters (about 900 feet).  A long climb but rewarding with views.

We ate lunch in Ezine at a traditional cafe with excellent “fasoulia” (green beans) which is similar to the word in Greek “fasoulakia.”   Vangelis and I notice a number of similar words in both languages, such as tea (tsai & chai) or tires (lastixi & lastichi).

Mustafa speaks good English.  The two women cyclists Timur and Nilgud speak enough English to converse.  A couple more Turks know some English words and phrases, but then the rest of the team (about half) know no English, so conversation is always mediated.   Fortunately, our bus driver Suleiman speaks Greek because he is married to Eleni from Thessaloniki who is along for the ride iwth their adorable daughter Destiny who everyone fawns over.

Neither Vangelis or I spoke a word of Turkish before coming, but both of us are making diligent efforts to learn basic words relevant to our daily needs, such as Stop (dur), Water (sou), Single File (dextera), Car (arava), and Good Morning (unided).   Being a handsome Greek man, Vangelis made it a point to learn how to say “I love you.”

The saddest part of today’s ride was cycling past the sign indicating ancient Troy was 5 km off the main road.   This meant a 10 km detour which we could not afford time-wise since we had to reach a Kipa store in Canakkale by early afternoon. NIlgud is an employee of Kipa a megastore like Carrefour which has given the Turkish team funds to enable them to participate in this unique event.

Later that evening we were hosted by the Canakkale Rotary Club at the city’s finest restaurant on the harbor.  We ate fabulous food,  much of it similar to Greek cusine, such as fried eggplant, yogurt, fava beans, stuffed grape leaves and fresh fish.   Our Rotary Club hosts listened with sincere attention as we went around the table and each of us said a few words about why we are here or what the ride means to us.  It was a meaningful exchange with a different type of Turkish citizen (businessmen).  We all  had many interesting exchanges.

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Day 5 : June 20

In the morning we put our bikes aboard a ferry at Canakkale to cross the Dardanelle Straits and began cycling towards Gallipoli.   It was a smooth cycling day, 120 km, and mercifully the sun was not as intense as other days.  In fact, by late afternoon we encountered rain but the raindrops actually felt good on our sweaty bodies so no one complained.

Except for one long climb over a mountain, the route was mostly flat and smooth cycling.  AT the top of the mountain was a rest stop selling colorful Turkish rugs (kilim) that made for good photo opportunities.

A highlight of the day was reach Kesan’s Kipa store where a 15 piece band welcomed us with great fanfare, television cameras, and media.  Since there are only two of us in Turkey on the Greek team, Vangelis and I are always being sought by the press for our opinions.

The local university allowed us to stay in their dorms for the evening since all the students’ exams have finished and school is closed.  That evening in Kesan’s Paradise Park, the municipality set up a screen, sound system and forum for us to present the slideshow on the values of cycling to help reduce global warming.   We also gave out brochures and t-shirts but truthfully we were all a little too tired to extend the evening.

It is hard work getting up at 6 am to start cycling in the heat all day and then making presentations at 9 pm in the evening —- hard but exceedingly rewarding work and the purpose of our ride, so despite our fatigue our little group always feels invigorated.

Day 6 : June 21

Today was our last day cycling in Turkey. We cycled 30 km until we reached the Greece-Turkey border.  There many of us felt so unhappy that the border police in Turkey would not let us bicycle into Greece.  We were made to put our bikes inside the support vehicle and drive the roughly 4 km of no man’s land.  This effort seemed so counter to our anti-global warming and peace mission — to be stripped of our bicycles while crossing an international border.   Apparently it was due to some bureaucratic rule about a coach must have passengers inside it.   To me it felt like a law concocted to thwart our ride because it was too unusual or out of the ordinary for customs officials to handle.

The displeasure of enterng the vehicle was soon diminished by our arrival to glorious Greece!   The Turks (and Arabs) refer to Greece as Yunanistan, and that was the last road sign was saw leaving Turkey.  We left the red flag of Turkey with its white crescent and star and welcomed the sight of the blue and white stripes with a cross in the corner.   How interesting that both countries have religious emblems on their flags.

As a side note, on my second or third day, I inquired out of curiousity how many members of the Turkish team were Muslim and learned all them are — although I have not once observed any of them praying or wearing headscarfs or mentioning their religion.   There were plenty of minarets en route yet I didn’t hear the muezzin’s call to prayer — a sound so exotically fascinating to my ear — as frequently as one does traveling in the Arab world.  When we arrived to Greece,  domed churches replaced mosques.

On the Greek side of the border, there was Mixales Antonoglou waiting for us with his spiffy Orbea road bike.   It was a relief to see him since he is the only member of our team from northern Greece — coming from Thessaloniki.   The minute he heard about the ride he signed up and has been a fearless advocate for its mission despite, unfortunately, a number of negative comments from Greek cyclists about not trusting Turks.  Mixales explains that this is the purpose of the ride — to dispel such negative stereotypes of Greece’s neighbors, the common people of Turkey.

We were all thrilled to unite up with the rest of the Greek team — Vassia, Dimitri and Giorgos — who came by train with their bicycles from Athens.   They will continue on with us to Thessaloniki.

Our cycling group has now increased in size and hopefully our message of peace, friendship and anti-global wamring will be delivered with greater reach and strength to the Greek people.

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Day 7 : June 22

The Greek police were at our hotel on time at 8:00 am as we set off on the Egnatia Highway of northern Greece.  Somehow once we arrived to Greece we are no longer biking into headwinds and the climbs have diminished along our particular route.   The sun, however, remains fierce.

I asked Atilla who carries the Greece and Turkey flags on the front of his bike — leading our human powered motorcade — if he has received any negative reactions from the people we pass en route and he said No. This news was a relief.  Just seeing the Turkish flag on Greek territory is rather rare and no wonder, given the 400 plus years of Turkish occupation of Greece when the Ottoman domination prevailed.  The Greek people could not speak Greek, go to Greek schools or practice their customs — let alone wave any kind of national flag.

Eventually, in the War of Independence in the 1820s the Turks were defeated and kicked out of the country during a long bitter strugle.   In the 1920s there were the “population exchanges” which is a euphemism for the period when Greeks made refugees from what is now Western Turkey where they had lived for centuries and Turks were expelled from northern Greece where they had lived for many, many years.   Yet and still, some peoples remained on both sides.  In northern Greece, the Turks are known as the “minority communities.”

Our first significant exchange with the Turkish minority community came in Komotini where we stopped for lunch.  The Turkish section is very vibrant with a mosque that seems to form the center of the community.  Outside the mosque is an old cemetery with white stone tombstones similar to barbershop poles bent and swaying in different directions.   In the brickstone streets of this neighborhood were luscious sweet shops, cafes with Turkish coffee, fountains with Arabic writing, men with skullcaps, women in scarves.   I pass out information flyers with Turkish on one side, Greek on the other and many of the members in this community can read by sides.

That evening we arrived to Xanthi, another city with a significant Turkish minority.  The old section of town has classic Turkish homes — the architecture featuring the second story jutting out with a large covered window area and pink, blue, green colored houses.  During a free period, I cycled around this area with two members of the Greek team, Dimitri and Vassia, on the brick cobblestone like streets.  It is a lovely area next to the Nestos River.

The Turkish community in Komotini put our Turkish cyclists in contact with a Turkish school in Xanthi and that is where the Turkish team stayed.  It seems that the minority Turks have their own schools.  Burchin and other Turkish cyclists remarked to me that they do not feel as if they have left Turkey.  And indeed, the neighborhood looks remarkaly similar to those we stayed at inside Turkey itself.  The women dressed the same, the men had skullcaps, people greeted us in the Turkish language — and yet we are in Greece!

We were in Komotini and Xanthi on Friday, the Moslim holy day, but we never once heard the entracing call to prayer that is typically heard where ever there are Moslims and minarets.

Day 8 : June 23

The Turkish team was very keen on seeing Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, since it had a large Turkish presence and has many historic remnants of the Turkish era.  But to do so meant that we had to skip an overnight in Kavala and instead cycle 140 km in one day.  Many of us gasped and said we could not do it.  But the group’s leader Mustafa encouraged us and we triumphed and succeeded in riding the most mileage ever on this trip.  Our eldest cyclist, Halit, is 64 and he did spend some of the hottest portions of the afternoon inside the support vehicle.

We were only to spend about 2 hours in Kavala, which was a pity, since it is a charming city with a very old section with a towering castle that dominates the town’s sea front.  It is a thrill to bicycle into Kavala because you pass directly through one of the portals of the aquaducts built in 1520 which ring a part of the city.  Were one to fly into Kavala, you would arrive at “Alexander the Great Airport.”

Several of us headed for the old town for lunch and we lucked out finding a very traditional taverna near the “kastro” (castle) with musical instruments on the walls and colorful characters seated inside.  When I told the waiter that the fava (beans) were the best I have ever had in Greece, he smiled an said his mother did all the cooking.  Of course!

En route we continuously saw signs for ancient ruins, 5 km to the left or 10 km to the right, but unfortunately we had zero time to visit them.  The one exception was a huge stone lion that was just sitting there beside the road.  It was about 2-3 stories high and centuries ago.  At this point I could not understand the Greek policeman’s explanation — and not fully trusting it since a policeman normally is not a historian or archaeologist — but it begs researching because the lion is so aweome and is all but identical to another statue of a lion, equally as mammoth, that lies also just off the side of the road in Cheronia northeast of Delphi.   That lion has something to do with a battle regarding Phillip of Macedonia, so this one probably relates to a similar war of the epoch.

We arrived to Asprovalta, a large seaside town, that happened to be hosting Greece’s former prime minister George Papandreas who continues to be a very formidable and powerful figure in contemporary Greek politics.  Interestingly enough, I had just seen him 2 days before I left for this Greece Turkey bike trip.   Al Gore was in Athens presenting his famous and incomparable “An Inconvenient Truth” slideshow — and at this event he introduced Mr. Papandreas to the audience.   A big noisy rally took place on Asprovalta’s seaside pedestrian walkway honoring him and so naturally there was an extraordianry amount of revelry and excitement in little Asprovalta.  The town’s carnival-like atmosphere coincided with our own joyous mood.  At a fish taverna whose owner presented us a feast of food,  we  celebrated our 140 km victory with toast after toast of ouzo — that milky white liquor  that reminded our Turkish friends of Turkish raki.

Day 9-10 : June 24-25

We had “only” 88 km to ride our last day to reach Thessaloniki — a distance that seemed puny compared to the 141 km we completed the previous day.   And yet,   by 9:00 am it was hotter than any mid-day cycling we had done the entire trip.  A powerful heat wave debilitated the region, in fact killing two persons.    So our intent to cruise into Thessaloniki early was foiled by constant water stops, primarily at gas stations where cyclists took turns at the water hose pouring cold water over their heads, bike clothes and all.  They ate ice cream too, which sounds inviting in the heat but I avoided it for fear it would cause me to be sluggish on the bike.  .

The Turkish team — all of whom are Muslim — were quite interested in our first pit stop.  It was at a centuries old Byzantine church in a park-like area and mass  was in session, today being Sunday.  Most likely the priest’s eccleisiastical singing is as foreign to them as an imam’s prayer calls are to Christian ears.  Politely remaining outside in their biking clothes, Nilgud, Mehmet and Ali peered inside to watch the service.  I put a coin in the candle box and gave Nilgud a tall thin candle to light which she placed in the sand with other lit candles.  I joined her and made my wish for global peace.   From the corner of my eye, I caught Giorgos making the sign of the cross three times, the standard reaction of Orthodox Greeks when passing a Greek Orthodox church.

The group leader, Mustafa, pushed us hard to get within 12 km of the city.  Here was the beginning of our highest ascent in Greece.  It truly was not so high, only 245 meters (about 800 feet) and only lasting 2 km while we had already conquered heights of 298 meters in Turkey lasting a good 5 km.  Yet and still, it took our focus and concentration as it came on the home stretch of the ride and in punishing heat.  Soon enough, each at our own speed, we were at the top from where we trespassed on any available shade.  Once we were all together, as one, we began the descent into Thessaloniki.

We had skipped Kavala to arrive to Thessaloniki early, which meant we arrived on Sunday at about 2:30 pm.  Had we entered the city a day later on Monday at this time we would have been in the midst of rush hour traffic on a major highway with cars weaving in and out exit ramps.  Lucky for us, the roads into Greece’s second largest city were quite tame today, allowing us to cruise effortlessly into town. hug the sea front and culminate in front of the White Tower, the city’s famous landmark which used to be a prison during the Ottoman occupation and today is a cultural exhibit site.   We were all high as could be — hugs, high fives, photos, lots of glee — we felt glorious.

In the evening we had our victory dinner at a traditional taverna on a side street whose tables occupied the entire street.   We were joined by two of the event’s three Greece organizers — Philip Dragoumis of Mia Fisi (”one nature”) and Evi Rousenelli  of Symposium Communications, both of whom had come from Athens.  (CycleGreece is the third organizer).  A representative of the Nomarkos (prefecture) sat with us as well.  Needless to say there were many toasts and  pats on the back.  Atilla accidentally broke a wine glass which prompted the Greeks to cry on cue “Good Luck!”

The next morning the Turks visited the Turkish Embassy which is located in the home of Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey who was actually born in Thessaloniki.

At 2 pm we rendezvoused in front of the White Tower to ride through the city to the residence of the Nomarkos Mr. Psomiadis.  The media were all present to capture the presentation of plaques to two members of the Greek team, Vangelis Kastamoulas and Mixalis Antonoglou, and to Mustafa Karakus for the Turkish team.   Philip of Mia Fisi made a presentation to Mr. Psomiadis and he and Mustafa made speeches stressing the need to fight global warming.  Mr. Psomiadis arranged for a lovely banquet with plenty of food for everyone.  A number of distinguished guests were present including Richard Jackson, who hails from Boston, and is the President of the American College of Thessaloniki.

The talk on everyone’s tongues is how the ride will be “next year,” with each person expressing their vision of it.  It is heartening to hear that the particpants and our supporters favor an annual anti-global warming international bicycle ride in the Aegean and Balkans region.

Tonight we take the support vehicle or trains to  Athens, the final destination, where on Wednesday we will ride from the Acropolis to the tip of the Attika peninsula.  We anticipate a hearty bunch of Athenian cyclists to join us and experience a touch of the euphoria that has made this event so memorable and groundbreaking.

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First published in Neo magazine, New York City, June, 2008

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

Greeks find it strange that someone called Colleen McGuire has adopted Greece as a homeland.  My name is Celtic to the core.  When I announce that my maternal grandfather’s name was Oreste Spadafora, big smiles break out, “Oh, the namesake of King Agamemnon’s son is surely of Greek heritage.”  When I add that the Spadaforas hailed from Sicily, an ancient Greek colony, I am then embraced as a true child of Ellas.

For my part, I feel I must have Greek blood because my attachment to this land runs so deep.   I live minutes from the Acropolis and do not take that elegant monument or its surrounding ruins for granted.  When I pass it or glimpse a few white marble columns from my terrace I experience a momentary sense of enlightenment.   Indeed, even unheralded ruins excite me, like those a bulldozer once uncovered in a construction site behind the building where first I lived in the Thissio neighborhood of Athens.  The antiquities authorities immediately issued a stop-work order and for the next year and a half I devotedly monitored the progress of a bona fide archaeological dig right in my backyard.

Rural areas are reservoirs of traditional arts, such as, weaving and wood carving, which also fascinate me.  In these tourist-deprived regions I revel speaking my kindergarten Greek with elders who patiently wait for me to formulate my sentences, unlike unruly Athenians who jump in with the correct word or more typically revert to English which thwarts my earnest efforts to conquer this tantalizing language.   Locals in rural regions tend to be proud people and they are flattered that you admire their customs and simple living.  My preference is to explore the countryside and islands by bicycle.

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I am somewhat of an anomaly in Greece because I cycle for transport, for pleasure, for exercise, a way of life.  Although Greece is the home of the Olympics, paradoxically, cycling and physical activity in general are uncommon pursuits for the average Greek.   This is a pity because a bicycle allows an intimacy unattainable from the seclusion of a car or the altitudes of a bus.  Even a motorcycle shatters the serenity of village life.  On numerous occasions villagers have told me that I was the first person in memory to arrive by bicycle.   Through slow motion travel I have seen so many endearing sights in remote and untrafficked areas.

In the Peloponnese peninsula near Kalavrita I pedaled to a hamlet whose prized feature is a hollow tree so huge that it holds a church inside it.  Honest to God.  I walked through the carved-out door and sighed when I saw an altar and eight chairs in a circle.  Religious icons hung from the inside bark and you could light a candle as you would in any other chapel.  I almost genuflected on the spot.

One late May while mountain biking near Mt. Parnassus, I discovered wild strawberries clinging to a wall of earth.  Sparkling from the morning dew and no bigger than a dime, they had a luscious sweetness way out of proportion to their size.  The biggest treat in rural Greece is the abundance of fresh water springs that make store-bought water taste stale.   Some sources are nothing more than rigged-up pipe spigots while others are more elaborate — fountains embellished with a lion’s head, the cold alpine water gushing from its roaring mouth.

Lesvos (a/k/a Mytilini) is Greece’s third largest island with an extensive road network of over 400 kilometers.  On my first visit, I spent two weeks cycling on my own to just about every town and settlement accessible by asphalt.  Despite its size, Lesvos is not a major tourist destination.  This means there are plenty of beaches that render bikinis as useless as a parka in July.   I have fond memories of my first evening when I pitched my tent near the adorable fishing village of Skala Sikaminias and walked into town for dinner at a seaside taverna.  The highlight was watching the sun, plump and red as a fire engine, linger to the point of loitering on the horizon as if debating whether to set.  The next morning I zipped open my tent, took three or four paces and—splash!—I was swimming in the sea, perky as a seal.  More than half my camp sites on Lesvos were within spitting distance of the Aegean.

Greece has so many precious places that it is regrettable tourists predominantly flock to Santorini and Mykonos.  These are gorgeous islands but I can name a dozen venues that vie in charm and allure, starting with romantic Hania in Crete, the indestructible mastica villages of Chios, car-free Skyros and the World Heritage Site of Meteora — all virtually unknown destinations to American vacationers.   I once had the privilege to escort the publisher of National Geographic Adventure magazine and his family on their first visit to Greece and select their itinerary.  They had never heard of Nafplio, but, like me, they instantly fell in love with this graceful and quintessentially Greek city.

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Nowadays, that is my mission — to convert newcomers to Greece into Grecophiles as ardent as I am.

Colleen McGuire formerly had her own housing rights law firm for sixteen years in New York City until Greece seized her attention.  She now divides her time between Athens, Greece and New York City operating a bicycle tour company called CycleGreece www.cyclegreece.gr and a specialty tour company called Aegean Adventures www.aegeanadventures.com She is a contributor to Greece A Love Story (Seal Press, 2007), essays from 19 American women, with a story called “Siga Siga: Cycling in Greece.”   Colleen bicycled solo from New York City to San Francisco with all her gear.

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COLLEEN F. McGUIRE  — I was a housing rights lawyer with my own law firm in New York City for 16 years until the gods of Greece called for me.   I now run CycleGreece, a company offering awesome odysseys on ancient terrain.