Sunday, November 1, 2009

Good Night and Thank You

"This is to certify that Maria Vella-Galea has successfully completed a 2000km cycle trip from Istanbul to Damascus"

Reading these words on the certificate during the Lifecycle Welcome Back party, the success of this event starts to sink slowly in. Over two months have passed since our return from Lifecycle. We all made it home safe and sound and I couldn't wait to get on my bike again.

Ever since I signed up for this year's Challenge, my life has revolved practically around it, such was my commitment towards it. The months preparing for the event, and the actual Challenge itself, have passed in a blur and now my life has reverted back to normal, whatever normal might be.

Whilst cycling through the roads of Turkey and Syria, I had already started to draft this final chapter as irrespective of whether I completed the whole Challenge or not, there were a number of people that I really felt the need to thank publicly.

So here goes.........

Medical Team - Carolyn Bonello, Stephanie Dalli, Francesca Fonk

Thank you for all your patience, dedication and attention. I certainly did get a lot of attention from you guys, and you helped make it possible for me to continue when my injuries could have potentially forced me to stop!

Kitchen Team - Theresa Azzopardi, Jennifer Chetcuti, Stephanie Galea

At the end of a gruelling day, it was great to know that a lovely warm meal, with loads of second and third helpings were always waiting for us. Your cheers of encouragement as we cycled into the accomodation each evening, irrespective of the hour, was an extra bonus, that we always looked forward to!

Photography - Ray Pace

Ray, your photos and documentary will provide us with an everlasting memory of this adventure but it is not just the photos that I will remember you for but also for your quiet encouragement which was a great source of support especially when the going was getting very tough.

Backup - Liz Ambrogio, Ray 'Space' Calleja, Stephanie Caruana, Shirley Cefai, Soner Gurelli, Edward Mercieca, Mario Scerri, Hulya Tosun

Liz - our bionic woman, Swiss army precision (as Alan put it in one of his briefings), you made sure our stuff got from A to B safely, amongst other things that we are probably not aware of!.

Edward, it was such a joy to reach a check point and find you there with your larger than life personality, big smile and laughter. And we were never more happier to see you than when you came to our accomodation in Damascus safe and sound after you little adventure with the Syrian army.

Mario, you never said much but just one particular look from you and I'd push harder to get the next check point.

Ray Space - always running around to ensure that our chains were well oiled (I didn't have the need to oil my chain since then :)), checking our tyres for the right pressure. Sometimes you gave a quiet word of encouragement which was always welcome.

Shirley - didn't see much of you as you were always in the front vehicle, but we know that you contributed alot towards this event.

Hulya - Muglu Guglu!!! Always ready to give a helping hand with a smile. A hug when needed. Your commitment and support towards our well being was amazing. I miss you!

Stephanie - our guiding light, setting up of signs on the road meant that you were one of the first to leave the accomodation in the morning, so we didn't see much of you, but the little we saw enabled us to get some great encouragement and morale support

Soner - when tackling a tough hill you always came to mind. Perhaps not always in a friendly way, but nevertheless, it was always nice to see your smile when you clocked us in at the end of the day!

Organiser, Chairperson, Task master etc. - Alan Curry

Alan - Yes there were times when most of us felt like strangling you but never was a time when I lost our respect towards you. Organising Lifecycle is no mean feat. Having to deal with so many different characters in difficult surroundings is not an enviable position. There are things that we might not see eye to eye on but I still thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in something so special as is Lifecycle.

The ones with us in spirit..John Cassar, Cliff Micallef

John, I can imagine how hard it was for you to be left behind because of an injury that was far from your fault. Watching us train, as we prepared for the journey, your support, enthusiasm and encouragment never faltered. Your support towards the team and positive attitude were an inspiration.

Cliff , no words can explain the void you left in our team. I didn't have to know you for a long time for you to have an effect on me. I still have your mobile number stored in my phone as a memory of the good times we shared whilst training.

Cyclists - Robert Zammit, Jesmond Desira, Simon J. Camilleri, Anthony Vella, Luke Marshall, Lenny Degiorgio, Nicholas Valenzia, Paul Cave, Maria Muscat, Pierre Spiteri, Nicholas Calleja, William Saliba, Ian Chaytor, Nigel Micallef, Julian Curmi, Carolina Merino Wells.

It was an honour for me to be in the Lifecycle Challenge with you. Cycling together, battling killer hills, fierce winds and intense heat to reach Damascus together. Your enthusiasm, dedication and teamwork was inspiring.

Jesmond, thank you for your encouragement and pacing which definitely helped me make it to the finish successfully. You certainly deserve the Award you were given.

Saving the best for last a HUGE THANK YOU goes to my cycling buddy Robert Zammit. Without you I would not have completed Lifecycle. We started this together and finished it together. Your sense of teamwork is outstanding. Ready to risk your timings to help me and others, even though people urged you to think about yourself you have really shown what teamwork and friendship is all about. I am proud to have cycled with you buddy!

Final word of thanks goes to my loved ones, friends, family, colleagues and sponsors who supported me throughout this adventure.

Good night and thank you!

Day 11 - Homs to Damascus

I always had serious doubts as to whether I would make it to the last day and final checkpoint on the bike and not in the back of a van but here I was in Homs, packing my bags and checking out my bicycle for the last time to make sure it is ready for the last 150kilometres of this challenge.
Final briefing from Alan, blessing from Fr. Pierre and pep talk from Carolyn and Paul before we leave en masse towards Damascus. Ian is feeling better today so he decides to cycle, whilst Lenny is not feeling at all good but still he starts off with us. The road today promises to be pretty straight forward, with some good down hills towards the end, although there is quite a long stretch of desert which will make it tougher in terms of heat intensity.

Our first checkpoint is in the middle of a desert. An open space where a street hawker set-up shop selling luke warm drinks. Further up a small shack provides a bit of privacy for the brave to make use of the hole found inside. Cold water is running out fast, as one by one parched cyclists descend on the backup team like vultures attacking their prey. The backup team promise us they will be driving along the way to provide us with a constant supply of cold water as much as possible.

Somewhere in between Checkpoint 1 and 2 we cycle past a Lifecycle van only to see a commotion of sorts. Slowing down see Ray, our photographer, sitting on the ground, broken camera by his side, and Stephanie holding a bag of ice on his head. Concerned we slow down but Mario urges us to continue. Half-heartedly we continue, hoping for the best but we can't help but wonder what happened. It later transpired that Willie, accidentally cycled straight into Ray, knocking him down on the ground, breaking his camera and injuring his head in the process.

The impact

With Ray in our thoughts we also have to battle the unbearable and stifling heat. Continuing on our route, the backup follow us in their vehicles, providing us with cold water as we cycle through the never ending desert route. Their presence is a godsend as it is not just a matter of providing us with cold water, but also providing us with support and encouragement to face the final few kilometres.

The saying goes “it never rains but it pours”.At the second checkpoint we are hit by another drama. Clocking in the second checkpoint, just beside a typical Syrian restaurant we find a very worried Edward surrounded by very formal looking Syrians who seem to be questioning him about something. Mario soon joins in the discussion. We find out through Carolyn, that some pictures, taken by her with Edward's camera included a red unmarked pick-up truck in the back ground. The soldiers instructed Edward to wait a couple of minutes until they showed the photo to their commanding officer. In the meantime we take the opportunity to have lunch and try to wait for the outcome of this interrogation. What is clear is that if Edward is accused of spying, this could have serious repercussions especially in a country whose conventions are not similar to those we are used. to. Mario, Hulya and Edward are still with the police when it is time for us to leave. Not wanting to leave without knowing what is happening we are urged to continue, with Mario reassuring us that we will get the necessary backup we need till the situation is solved. In the meantime we also learn that Lenny had to stop and was continuing part of the journey in an ambulance the gastric problems weakening him so much that he could barely stand up. Again more upsetting news about our friends. There was not much we could do except do our best to reach Damascus safely hoping that all our friends would be there waiting for us.

Because Mario is caught up trying to avoid Edward going to jail, we do not have water supplies readily available and this part of the road is just desert so it is not a case of stopping in one of the shacks we were encountering in the previous roads and buying water. Cycling in the relentless sun, we had to make sure that our water supplies lasted until the third checkpoint, but with temperatures reaching 46 degrees, controlling our thirst a major task. Reaching the third checkpoint, there was no need to ask for water as it was handed to us automatically, our first question was to ask about Edward. Alan had no news except that he was being taken to a military camp and being held there. Mario was sent away, leaving Edward at the mercy of the Syrian authorities. Calls were being made to the Maltese consul but such incidents took time to be dealt with. Alan reassured us that all that was possible was being made to get Edward back into our fold and like Mario before him urged us to continue cycling. Wetting my bandanna with ice cold water, I leave the checkpoint only to realise shortly after that I left my helmet behind. Fully aware of the chaotic driving I would be experiencing in Damascus, I still had no intention of turning back especially since I was enjoying a nice steep downhill. I just prayed for the best. Reaching speeds of 60kms per hour, the distance to Damascus kept on reducing. It is only at this point that I am actually thinking there is a possibility of me completing Lifecycle successfully. The last ten kilometres were the longest of the whole trip. I was on the look out for the final checkpoint signs whilst trying to survive the chaotic driving on the dusty and filthy roads.

Reaching the final checkpoint, I am clocked in by Soner and greeted with large cheers from the cyclists who had already arrived and the rest of the back up team. Poignantly, Cliff's poster was there, welcoming us to the final chapter of this challenge. Exhausted, I am quickly taken into an air-conditioned car to cool down, protected from the strong afternoon sun. Gulping down a bottle of one litre bottle,I don't even know where I left my bike but I don't really care. I am happy not to see my bike for a while after this.
Exhausted but happy

Robert and Nicholas arrive shortly after me, and that is when I start phoning my loved ones and texting my friends and colleagues advising them that I have successfully completed Lifecycle. I am still in a daze as the remaining cyclists clock in.

Texting home

There is still no news of Edward, and that marred the fun as we were all hoping that he would be there to cheer us as we reached Damascus. This was not to be though. Negotiations for his release were still taking place.

We still have the final bit to cycle to our accommodation. All vehicles having reached the final checkpoint we are escorted into Damascus. With the backup team blaring their car's horns in triumphant mode, and cyclists pummelling the air with clenched fists we slowly cycle into the busy streets of Damascus' city centre. Our triumphant entry is not a common occurrence and we are greeting with a number of curious and bemused looks. We don't care. We are happy to have completed this adventure.

The fat lady has indeed stopped singing!

Photos courtesy of Ray Pace & Stephanie Caruana

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Day 10 - Aleppo to Homs

Only two days are left but as the saying goes “it ain't over till the fat lady sings”.
Whilst Alan is giving his standard briefing and Fr. Pierre gives us his blessing, Mario and the rest of the drivers sort out the vehicles, branding them with Lifecycle stickers, making them recognisable for us when on the road.
Prior to leaving we all have one last look around to ensure we left nothing behind and off we go. I am quite relieved to see that we will be escorted by a police vehicle on our way out of Aleppo. I have never experienced such crazy driving as I did in Aleppo - not even in Malta! As we go along, traffic police salute us as we go by. It is very apparent that they are not used to seeing a bunch of cyclist riding en masse, battling the chaotic traffic they are entrusted to control.

Briefly stopping to get one final briefing before taking on the road, Alan reminds us of our timings. We are raring to go. The sooner we start the closer we will get to Damascus. Jesmond teams up with Robert and myself and together we pick up a good pace.
The road promises to be boring today, as we are cycling on the highway leading to Homs from Aleppo. Picking up an average speed of 23 kilometres per hour, we soon find ourselves at the first checkpoint where we are greeted by an amazed Alan and Shirley. The hot weather does not entice me to eat the staple fare, especially flapjacks – which we realise have expired and have become impossible to chew. Nevertheless with a lot of effort I manage to eat one and drink a litre bottle of cold water in the process. Filling up our bottles, which I know will become hot in a few minutes, we proceed.

Till now, I am feeling great. My knees and ankle are miraculously not giving any signs of bother, so much so that I actually removed all strapping and bandages and am feeling strong . As the day progresses into the afternoon, the driving becomes more chaotic. Cycling through the traffic becomes a slalom course. Although we are keeping to the side of the highway, we encounter traffic going in the opposite direction on our 'lane'. What a difference when compared to the respect shown by Turkish drivers.

No need for strapping!

A close shave that could have had tragic consequences was a result of such driving from Syrian motorists. Cycling next to each other on the side of the road, we suddenly we find a motorcyclist driving straight into Robert's direction. Immediately I shout to grab Robert's attention. Just in the nick of time, as Robert manages to avoid the motorcyclist. All of us instinctively swerve to the left, a chain reaction we had no other alternative to. Jes, being on the edge of the hard shoulder swerved onto the motorway. Seeing his sudden movement, I thought he would be hit by one of the speeding cars. I closed my eyes.. Thankfully Jes managed to edge back in but was left in complete shock, like the rest of us. The usually relaxed Jes had to stop to catch his breath. I shudder to think what the consequences could have been that day. It certainly was an eye opening making us realise how extra careful we must be on these roads.

Reaching Checkpoint 3 we are in for a treat – Ice! Perfect to put on our aching joints and perfect to cool us down. With temperatures reaching approximately 43 degrees, I decided to cool down by putting some cubes in my cycling top. The heat would not make them last long, but for those few minutes it would be bliss.

Syrian roads are dotted with President's Assad smiling face

The roads in Syria, compared to those of Turkey, are a case of you win some, you lose some. Whilst the driving is chaotic and dangerous, the tarmac resembles more the kind of tarmac we are used to, minus the potholes, so it makes cycling a bit easier. Being relatively flat roads, I am able to keep up with Jesmond's pace. The only incline is around Amanos but it is nothing compared to the hill we had in Belen or in the early days.

The heat is unbearable and Robert and I stop a couple of times to buy water, half of which is poured on our heads, soaking our bandanna in the hope of getting a couple of minutes respite. The rest of the water is gulped down in a few seconds. Because the heat is so intense I am not managing to eat enough and thus my energy supplies are low. I eat sweets in an attempt to get my sugar levels stable but it doesn't seem enough and I start slowing down.

Reaching the next checkpoint I have the luxury of sitting in an air-conditioned van, while Fran massages my ankle, which till now has not yet played up. The heat has really clammed up my stomach and I really can't bring myself to eat even though I need to give myself some sort of energy source. Alan comes to the rescue with a concoction called Muscle Juice – the name is enough to churn my stomach but the powder mixed with cold water actually tastes like a hazelnut milkshake. Just before leaving, Paul wets my bandanna with ice cold water which provides such a relief in the sweltering heat. Alan, tells us, before we set off, that we are only around 20kms away from the accommodation We should soon be home.

A welcome physio break

He was wrong. With my GPS showing that we had already covered 30kms we start to get worried. In the meantime Jesmond catches up with us again. We start to get concerned and Soner's previous warnings not to take the road to Baghdad comes to haunt us. In reality we haven't seen the signs yet so hoping for the best we keep on cycling along the straight road. 5 kilometres later we see the signs – Baghdad, Lebanon. Hurray we are on the right track. We are only a few kilometres away from a country that was the cradle of civilisation now a war torn country. The road signs provide us with an amazing surge of energy – fuelled by the prospect of a warm shower and hot tasty meal.

In a few moments we see Soner waiting for us. Clocking us in he is surprised to see us. We are the first to arrive and he is visibly impressed. We have definitely gained on our time! Our enthusiasm at arriving first quickly fades when we see the state of the accommodation, which is an inter-faith retreat place. We are instructed not to speak to the residents and try to keep the noise levels as low as possible since they are in prayer. The sleeping areas are made up of tents and gypsy caravans. Both are quite dirty and flee ridden. The showers, although having warm water, are dirty so having a shower requires a balancing act. I decide to sleep in the truck, so I dump my sleeping stuff nearby.

Kitchen facilities are pre-historic, and I find a very frustrated kitchen team trying to prepare supper. Although cooking in such a situation is a nightmare for them they still whip up an excellent plate of pasta which sends us asking for second helpings! We also have fresh bread, which saw them almost crossing into Lebanon to buy!

An hour after we arrived, other cyclists start to trickle in. It is now dark when Nicholas, Lenny and Luke phone to say they are close to the Lebanese border and lost. They are tired and by the time they reach the accommodation, Lenny is not feeling well and they are not the happiest of bunnies. Julian and Simon are also late in arriving, with Julian still suffering from acute stomach cramps. One has to admire the tenacity of such cyclists who don't give up even when they are feeling unwell. However, sometimes illness strikes and there is no option but to stop. That's what happened to Ian who was suffering from acute gastric problems that not even an injection from Steph managed to control. Very upsetting when one considers all the effort carried out throughout the challenge.

Although the facilities are basic the atmosphere in the camp is good and light hearted. The boys start singing and playing the bongos. Liz and I had retired into the truck to sleep but were kept awake with the noise and laughter. Resigned, I took my sleeping bag and collapsed into the musty caravan. I was too tired to think of anything else and I really wanted to have enough energy to carry on with the last day.

As I settle into my sleeping bag I cannot help but think about tomorrow. I visualise the finish line which now is obviously feeling closers than ever. I try to imagine my reaction to reaching the final checkpoint. Will I cry or will I be too shattered to feel anything? My timings are good and unless some catastrophe happens I will be well in time to finish. Having said that I cannot let my guard down.

I have to stay focused for the last 150 kilometres.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Day 9 - Hatay to Aleppo

Damascus is getting closer. The feeling starts to sink in this morning as Alan, during his daily briefing reminds us to carry our passports with us. He and Fr. Pierre also give us some quick tips on Border protocol – removal of helmet and sunglasses, no animated conversations or loud laughter.

Going through the route card for the day

The border is approximately 60 kilometres away. Escorted for the last time by a police escort we all leave together. There will be no timings until we reach the border but we are urged to cycle as fast as possible, which admittedly is very annoying especially when the order is given from the interior of an air-conditioned van.

Approaching the Syrian border

As we get closer to the Syrian border, the heat levels start to increase drastically. The cold water in my bottle has become warm, good enough to make a cup of tea. The roads are quiet country roads, and we encounter little traffic. As we reach the 30km mark, we stop to get cold water and snacks. A packed lunch has been prepared for us and will be taken at the border whilst our passports will be vetted by border officials.

The approach to the border finds us cycling through a long line of trucks, carrying all sorts of goods. We enjoy this line as it offers us some shade and respite from the strong sun, which is beating strongly on us even though it is still mid morning. I shudder to think of what is in store for us in the afternoon hours.

Turkish - Syrian Border

Leaving Turkey is a sombre affair. Our passports are stamped as we exit in a group. Past the border into no man's land we cycle for a few kilometres through dry, barren and unwelcoming landscapes. A few cars drive slowly past us.

No Man's Land

A few moments later we reach the Syrian border. Soner takes our passports and advises us that this procedure might take long. We settle down in an sheltered open area where an influx of cars, buses and truck pass at a steady pace after having passed a thorough inspection process. A sign “Welcome to Assad's Syria” greets us. Obeying Alan's instructions we sit down and eat our snacks. Francesca decides to carry out some physio much to the disgust of the male Arab travellers. They are shocked to see a woman, although modestly dressed, touching a male's thighs in public.

The people I love were only a message away!

During our three hour wait, Alan informs me that my timings have improved considerably but he wants to help us so he will organise the cyclist groups in such a way that the faster cyclists like Jesmond, Pierre and Willie will ride with us so that they can set the pace for us. Shortly after our passports are returned to us, and we can continue on our journey. Alan reminds us that Syria should be flatter than Turkey so hopefully we will get a bit of respite.

Jesmond, teams up with me and Robert and we set off at Jesmond's pace. The roads are mainly flat although there are some undulations with some steep inclines. I find it quite a task to keep up with Jesmond. Looking at my GPS I find that I am keeping an average speed of 22kilometres an hour. The heat is becoming unbearable and although my water bottles are full the water is almost boiling making it unfit for drinking. My heart rate is rising, whereas normally it averages 112 beats per minute, here it was reaching 150 beats. Thankfully we soon have a water stop and end up pouring water on my head to cool down. I can't wait for the next checkpoint.

Jesmond picks up the pace again, so fast that I can barely keep up with him. Turning round to keep an eye on my progress he encourages me, slowing down a bit. The heat is immense and I am parched. My water bottle is already empty. I have no Syrian money so we cannot stop to buy drinks. Thankfully, after about 20 minutes, although they did seem like an eternity, we see the backup truck and the welcome “Checkpoint” sign. Paul greets me with his trademark smile. What happened next is a blur as all I remember is telling him to hold the bike. Then I faint falling down in the middle of the road. Thankfully Robert is near by and manages to break my fall. Soner carries me to a nearby bench. I remember a flurry of activity and voices. I could hear Nicholas, from a distance, urging them to give me Diarolyte and Jesmond giving me a foul tasting drink, whilst someone else is calling on Steph the doctor to come quickly. Someone wets my bandanna with cold water and puts it over my head whilst someone holds my legs up so that the blood starts flowing properly. I feel Steph putting on a cuff, inflating it and monitoring my blood pressure. The heat has caused it to go down hence the fainting fit. I feel so embarrassed by all this and try to wave off the attention it has generated. I ask for my bike so that I can continue to go to the next checkpoint but Alan tells me that this was the final one and that I could ride into Aleppo in one of the backup vans. It seems that I have gained quite a lot of time today, even though I felt as if I was going to kill myself in the process. AT least I can sleep a bit easier tonight even though it's far from over.!

Going to our accommodation we drive to some of the main stress in Aleppo. The driving is chaotic and treacherous. Drivers, completely ignore traffic warden instructions even though they are frantically waving their hands and blowing their whistles forcefully. Driving is a matter of “survival of the fittest” it seems. More like a dodgems fun park scenario than a historical city. Having a police escort helps although it seems that drivers have little regard for authority when it comes to driving. Shirley, who is travelling in the same backup vehicle as I am closes her eyes. She cannot bear to look at what the cyclists are driving through.

Our accommodation in Aleppo is a Jesuit residence which also serves as a school. Therese and her team quickly settle down and start preparing dinner, whilst the rest of us prepare our beds for the night. Quickly realising that there are only two showers to cater for all of I, I sneak into the first shower just before the mob realises and attacks!

Shower ready. Lenny asks me to join him, Luke, Will and Robert to go to the city to exchange money and have a quick drink. We advise Ray and Steph, that we would be going out for a while and we find a lift from one of the residents who takes us into the city and stops us on the main road just in front of a Bureau de Change. Exchanging some Turkish Lira into Syrian pounds, we set off to find a decent looking cafe. My attire, although relatively modest is not modest enough it seems as I get a few disapproving glances from passers by – male and female. I guess a female accompanied by four males is not exactly the norm in this country. Sitting down, on comfortable armchairs we tuck into some Middle Eastern fare – tabbouleh, fattoush, hoummous and pitta bread. I am careful not to eat raw vegetables as I have had a lot of warnings about the effects these could have. The food is a welcome change from the usual pasta which although is excellent and plentiful it gets a bit too much at times.

Time to head back. We look out for a taxi. I see a little taxi dropping off a whole family – I swear about ten people came out of the little vehicle. Packing ourselves into the taxi, Robert sits in front striking a conversation with the driver, while I squeeze in the back with Lenny, Luke and Willie. What a laugh, the driver was extremely friendly and very amused to see us all laughing our heads off. Getting to our accommodation we tip him generously and he is very pleased to pose for photos with us.

Back at the accommodation I am in time for Mass. Part of our daily routine, that I must admit I look forward to. I might not always follow what Fr. Pierre says but that half an hour gives me time to take stock of the day's events and say a little prayer for all involved and for all those who will benefit from our efforts.

Day 8 - Kozan to Hatay

As I walk to the breakfast area in a zombified state after having slept for just three hours, I am greeted by Fr. Pierre who wishes me a happy feast - 15th August. I have forgotten which day of the week or date of the month. All I am focusing on are the days left till we get to Damascus, and I am sure I am not the only one.

Tonight, we will be sleeping in the last Turkish accommodation in the Hatay, which extends like a stumpy finger into Syria. An Arab enclave it has closer cultural links to the Arab world that with the Turkish hinterland. In fact these links go back to the seventh century AD, when Arab raiders began hacking at the edges of the collapsing Byzantine Empire.

Cycling over 200 kilometres, tackling a 13kilometre hill with inclines of 11% – 15% coupled with the lack of sleep from last night's adventure will not give anyone points for guessing that this will be yet another difficult day. Alan warns us to check out for any signs of tampering on the route signs, even though we have our route planned today, we do not want a repeat performance of yesterday's adventure.

The first 40 kilometres are fairly straight forward, with long straight roads that enable us to reach average speeds of 24km per hour. Lenny and Nicholas' attempt to draft to closely with each other ends up with Lenny having a close encounter with the tarmac, resulting in bruising and scratches and a hole in his helmet.

The first checkpoint is reached within an hour and a half from departure. Having our usual fare of jacket potatoes, bananas, Powerade and flap jacks I sit down for a couple of minutes and mull over the last few days. Everything seems to have passed in a blur. I look at the cyclists and backup around me having a laugh – of course that is very easy when Edward is around. I envy their carefree attitude, something I wish I had more of especially in these challenges. I am not saying that I am not enjoying the whole experience but for me failure is not an option. This self inflicted stress is not conducive to a carefree attitude and as much as I try to keep positive the pain in my ankle does not help. My thoughts are stopped when Carolyn comes up to me armed with biofreeze and bandages. Massaging my ankle and offering words of encouragement, I feel better. The fact that there are quite a few people out there who want me to succeed is heart-warming and gives me the push I need to carry on.

Our directions lead us to Iskenderun, which was founded by Alexander the Great to commemorate his victory over the Persians. Iskenderun became the main port for Aleppo from where trade routes fanned out to Persia and the Arabian peninsula. Cycling along the seaport we encounter the busiest main roads and chaotic driving so far. We do get some doubts as to whether we are on the right track due to lack of signs, so with each sign we saw Rob and I gave a sigh of relief.

The road south east from Iskenderun rises up in to the mountains, passing through the small hill-town of Belen. The road strains and curves through the Belen pass, which was of great strategic importance during Roman times.

Just before we start tackling the long 13 kilometre hill, we have a checkpoint. My ankle is now swollen again, and giving me a lot of grief. I ask Steph for a jab but to my dismay, she cannot find the vials in her bag, which got slightly disorganised when most of it's contents fell onto the van's floor. Not wanting to waste too much time, I take two Panadols and move off, agreeing with Steph that we would meet on the way and get a jab there.

Nigel, Lenny and Luke catchup with us and we start tackling the hill. Luke, seems to have found a surge of energy and disappears up the hill, whilst we remain cycling at a constant speed, trying to avoid a number of crazy drivers who give us strange looks. Well I guess, it is a tad crazy to cycle up such a hill so you cannot blame them for looking at us as if we were little green men on flying saucers.

Checkpoint Four offers us an amazing view. Whilst the others stop to take photos, Steph sticks a needle into my left butt cheek. Most welcome as I almost have to hop on one leg, the pain has become so intense. As a reward for being a brave girl, Hulya offers me some Turkish sweets made out of filo pastry, pistachios and honey. A good surge of energy!

The 15kilometre downhill following the steep hill up to Belen is welcome, and the boys, soon disappear amidst their shouts. The wind coming from the valley is so strong that I have to fight to keep straight. As I get to the bottom of the hill, I find Nigel, Robert and Lenny waiting for me. Since we have a flat road, and the winds are picking up speed we draft, but the wind coming from the side makes it almost impossible. We attempt to double draft, forming two lines side by side, however we never really practiced this technique, which ideally requires at least six cyclists. However it does give some respite.

As darkness falls we still have about 25 kilometres to go. We are all dead tired and most of us are in a foul mood, especially when we get to a junction with signs indicating a left turn to get to Hatay but no Lifecycle signs in the vicinity. Lenny flips. He phones Soner to ask for directions, the stress and exhaustion clearly showing in his responses. Soner tells us to keep on going straight and to follow the signs.

Lenny cycles determinedly at a pace that I cannot keep up with, and eventually cycles off leaving Robert, Nigel and myself to keep each other company. I am worried even because his back light is not working and the roads are not very well lit. There is nothing to do except keep on cycling, drafting trying to help each other. We finally make it to the stadium, relieved to find the backup team and other cyclists there waiting for us. Soner takes my bike and advises me that we have done good timings. We are happy to see that Lenny has arrived safely as well, although Nicholas, Tony, Simon and Julian are still behind us. Whilst Nicholas and Tony arrive shortly after us, Julian and Simon are still far behind, both of them not in the best of health but are being closely monitored by Steph the doctor.

Since, upon arrival, food is ready, I sit down to eat a hearty supper of pasta. Therese and her team work magic in the limited space and resources they have, combining proteins, carbs and enough quantities to give us the right amount of fuel into our systems. Second and third helpings are normal occurrences and Therese is concerned when we don't ask for more! - That rarely happens in reality.

Almost everything in Lifecycle becomes an automatic ritual. Preparing my belongings and bed for the night, charging my phone and GPS, sorting out my gear for the next day. Having done all that I proceed to my next ritual – physiotherapy. Removing the strapping my from my knees is a painful process even because the day before I inadvertently removed a small layer of skin, which has left an open wound on my thigh. Massaging my thighs, knees and ankle is a painful yet soothing process, that keeps us going from day to day.

Exhausted, I prepare to go to bed but not before having gobbled a pistachio ice cream that Lenny bought me after a quick visit to a store across the road! Walking into the gym shortly after my treat, I am greeted by the sounds of varying symphonies emanating from various crevices of already sleeping bodies.

Carolina and I have one quick look at each other, silently grab our inflatable mattresses and seek refuge in an unused shower, closing the door and shutting out all unpleasant and unwelcome sounds. Our usual banter is reduced to a quick good night.

We are both closer to Damascus.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Day 7 - Avanos to Kozan

The route card only gave directions for the first 15.5kms, showing us the way out of Avanos and Urgup. The rest would be announced later. We were warned that the total day distance would be around 240km so it would be a very challenging day. Alan advises us to watch out for the Lifecycle Route signs since it was not possible to trace the route during the pre-visit. Alan explains that there were two route choices, the one chosen during the pre-visit was dangerous and definitely not an option so the other route had to be taken but due to time constraints it was not possible to trace it on a route card. I am still upset about the time lost in the previous day due to the multitude of punctures, but there is no use crying over split milk. I just have to do my best to keep up the rhythm and increase my pace.

As we leave the accommodation we head towards Goreme taking the highway. In the distance we could see numerous hot air balloons manoeuvring their way, through the early morning mist, over the treetops and fairy chimneys. I felt a pang of jealousy. The people enjoying this scenic flight were on holiday relaxing. Focusing on the straight road ahead we arrive in Goreme. In the early hours of the morning it seemed less chaotic than it was in the afternoon the day before.

Early in the day, with our leg muscles barely warmed up we are faced with a killer winding road that takes us up to Urgup. The inclines, registered on my GPS, go up to 18%. I feel my leg muscles working on overdrive, almost bursting with the sheer exertion. In front of me Nigel is asking, in a loud voice, why is he doing this. I guess most of us had that feeling as we toil up the long, winding road.

My ankle starts to bother me from the start of the day. The undulating roads are not helping at all. Following the signs, our eyes open to make sure we don't miss any, my ankle becomes increasingly swollen, ever pedal movement pure torture. I do not want to stop and waste time but I cannot keep on going. Robert phones Steph and asks her to come and check my ankle. In the meantime, he gently removes my shoe and starts massaging my ankle which has become the size of a tennis ball. I cannot put any weight on it, so I cannot really do much. Edward soon drives up, and Carolyn puts on deep freeze and bandages it. Steph is in another car further in front so we have to catch up with her. The boys, who have stayed with me so far, reluctantly leave, with Robert and Tony staying behind to ensure that I don't cycle alone.

Slowly we progress. Each pedal stroke I take is taking me closer to Steph and hopefully some painkillers. The journey, although not long, seems interminable and when finally we catchup with them, I am in tears. Steph explains that my tendons are badly swollen due to the technique I am using to try to avoid the pain in my knees. I forget my aversion to needles and I beg her to give me a painkiller so that I can proceed. She is reluctant, but I remind her that she is a Lifecyclist so she should know how important it is for me to continue. She gives in but warns me that if the inflammation gets worse she will make me stop, without any ifs or buts. My heart sinks as I know this will be the case. I know it is for my own good, as damaging the tendons could mean me giving up horse riding and cycling in future.

Whilst Steph is preparing to give me the painkiller, Space is hovering around. Full of concern towards my wellbeing, he is in the way and is unceremoniously turned away by Steph who asks him to give us some privacy as she gives me a jab in my bottom. I am very upset about it all and I silently pray that this will work and the pain won't increase forcing me to stop short of my target, after months of preparation and sacrifice.

Tony, Robert and I set off again. They are determined not to leave me on my own, especially now that I am at my lowest ebb. The road ahead is tougher than what we have experienced so far. A long, never ending, gravelly, off-road track. A car passes by at full speed ahead, causing gravel to spray all over the place, hitting Robert's arm in the process. A small gash but nonetheless painful and irritating. We keep on going and catchup with Lenny, Luke, Nigel, Nicholas and Ian. We group up, giving moral support to each other especially when we have to tackle a long and cruel hill. To this day I don't know how I managed to keep with the guys, not giving up irrespective of the pain, which although had subsided was still there nagging me all the time. I guess it is the adrenaline working on overdrive.

Finally reaching the top of the hill, we find a treacherous downhill path, which nearly sees Nicholas flying off the road and down the hill. Nonetheless we all enjoy a bit of respite from the cruel hills. Reaching a clearing we sense that something is wrong. We seem to have reached a dead end. An old man suddenly appears from nowhere, shouting, motioning with his hand as though he was shooting at something. Lenny, quickly nicknames him the Hobbit, who seems to take a liking to Nigel. Irrespective of the language barrier they seem to reach an understanding. It is a bit of comic relief for us, but we realise that things are not right. There aren't any signs in sight. The last one we saw indicated the direction we took but the road seems to lead to nowhere. None of us want this to be true as it would mean having to go back up the downhill we so happily flew down.

Nicholas suggests we phone the backup team but we realise that none of us have mobile reception. We are practically cut off from everyone. Robert suggests that we start heading back, the backup van was close by and seeing that they too were following the signs we were follwoing we would be able to meet up with them and get directions.

Following Robert's suggestion we start cycling back, to our relief we see Mario and his team driving by. We all realise that we are all lost, and that Simon and Julian are still somewhere behind us. Frustration starts to set in. It is already getting late and we still have another 80 kilometres to cycle. Perhaps I am the only one that silently, welcomes this break as my ankle is still swollen and the pain killer's effect is slightly waning. I don't know if I can go much further if the pain increases and I know that if it does Steph will definitely make me stop.

In the meantime we are joined by Edward, Carolyn and Steph who immediately proceed to feed us, giving us some fresh cheese and bread they bought on the way. What a treat! Such a refreshing change from bananas and flapjacks. Like piranhas on a feeding frenzy we devoured the sandwiches, leaving only a few crumbs as evidence of their existence.

In the meantime, Mario is attempting to reach Alan, but network coverage is unavailable. Seeing that we cannot do much he decides to take us up to a location where there is network coverage. It is obvious that the signs have been tampered with and since we have no route card showing the way we are all in the same situation – LOST!

Mario decides to start moving us to a better location, one where hopefully we can get network coverage. The situation is tense. Tired cyclists not knowing what will happen. Concerned back up team entrusted with our safety. Mario doesn't have much options. He deposits us on a mountain road, which is the only possible road and heads back to where the bikes were left with Carolyn, Steph, Edward and Space. The latter being responsible to pack the bikes in the other van.

In the meantime, as is expected in mountainous areas, as night starts to fall the temperature lowers. In an attempt to keep warm, all huddle together, keeping in mind that cycling the rest of the kilometres is a posisblilty. During this time we work on a plan of action to ensure that our participation is not cut short because of this adventure. A few cyclists start preparing a not so friendly speech to deliver to Alan whilst others try to keep sprits up by saying jokes and singing songs. We don't know what is going to happen but we all know that we are in for a long night.

As we grow colder, the more our enthusiasm to keep on cycling wanes. Pitch black darkness envelopes us as we wait for the rest of the backup team. Although we are no longer in a valley, we have little signal and although we managed to get through to Shirley the line drops almost immediately, never to be picked up again. I don't know for how long we waited for Mario and Edward to reach us but it felt like forever. By that time the effect of the painkillers had gone completely. For the very first time since this adventure started I actually contemplated of giving up. I had no energy left to cycle more. I was exhausted, cold and hungry.

Freezing up on the mountain

Mario, having managed to get through to Alan, informs us that we are to cycle down the mountain road to where Alan is waiting for us. It seems that we were actually quite close to the final checkpoint. We all resist to these instructions but in reality there is not much we can do. There is no room in the vans to takes us and the bikes and the truck, carrying our luggages, is already miles away in our accommodation It will take much longer if we had to wait for it.

Slowly, we put back our helmets on and start cycling down, Mario driving in front and leading the way whilst Edward, at the back lights up the road with the van's headlamps. Going downhill was not a problem but we soon find another uphill. Gingerly I pedal, each movement giving me spasms of pain in my ankle. I feebly attempt to complain about cycling in these conditions, after having spent hours in the cold, but in reality there is not much we can do. Mario urges me to get into the van. I refuse. First of all I am part of a team and I am not going to go into the van whilst my team mates are walking up the hill and secondly I don't want to risk being kicked off the trip because I stopped cycling. Space rushes next to me, almost begging to take my bike up the hill, stubbornly I proceed. I barely take two steps when I hear a stern voice from behind - “Maria, stop being stupid and get into the van NOW!” Steph's stern voice catches me unaware, and automatically and meekly, I give my bike to Space and get into the van.

I burst out crying. Partly due to exhaustion, partly due to pain and partly due to the stress of the whole day. Mario reassures me that I won't be forced to stop. The circumstances were beyond everyone's control and now the focus is to get everyone safely to the accommodation. Shortly after we catch up with Alan and Shirley. The bikes are removed from the vans once again to be organised in a better manner and stored in such away that we all fit in the vans. I remain in the van, now half asleep having taken an anti-inflammatory pill to ease off the inflammation in my ankle. I hear a commotion outside. It seems that Space is concerned with the safety of a watermelon that has been on the journey with us whilst Mario, quite rightly so, is interested in getting everyone out of that area. But deep down, it did offer some comic relief to all.

Space and the infamous watermelon!

Again I fall asleep so I am not fully aware of what happened. All I know is that we are all squashed, like sardines, in the vans and start heading home. On the way Alan's van has a flat tyre, and although Robert does his utmost to change the wheel the bolts are so tightly screwed that no one is able to unscrew them leaving Alan and Shirley to wait for the guys from the rental company to fetch them.

At 2am, or thereabouts we get to the accommodation where we find Therese, Jennifer and Steph awake, waiting for us. The rest of the cyclists are fast asleep. I am amazed at Therese's team's capacity to provide us with a warm meal even in the middle of the night.

I quickly make a phone call home after finding a multitude of messages from a concerned mum and Conrad. It is not like me not to answer any message so their concern is obvious. Although I play down the day's events to my mum, I break down when I speak to Conrad. An accumulation of all the stress and fatigue and the thought of having another four days of intense cycling combined with my injuries.

Our instructions are to wake up at 7am. We will still be cycling the planned route the day after even if we wouldn't have had a good night's sleep. I don't stop to think about it much, all I am thinking about is the inflatable mattress that I have put in a quiet corner underneath the gymnasium's stairs, falling asleep as soon as I hit my head on the pillow.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Day 6 - Kirsehir to Avanos

I guess we had been looking forward to this day ever since we got our hands on our route cards. The shortest day with only 90kms and the opportunity to visit the famed fairy chimney rock formations of which the region is so famous. Stephanie Dalli's excitement was so evident that morning, as today's location was the highlight of her trip!

As what has now become a mantra, Alan stresses the importance of timings. I am about six minutes behind time. Although Alan always tells me he is confident that I will make up the time, it is extra pressure on me, and I must admit it does slightly mar the fun. Briefing over, off we go. Paul decides to join us on the ride and we set off together. Although the road is relatively flat, the tarmac grip is incredible and makes it feel as if we are cycling at a constant incline.

Turkish Tarmac!

Today we only have one checkpoint but as always it is a welcome break, especially when Big Ed is there to welcome us with his beaming smile and big hug, or Carolyn and Steph's cheeky grins, fooling around to cheer us up. I am now bored of the staple food that is being provided but obviously it is the best food to keep us going. I know for a fact that I will not look at Nutella, Peanut Butter and Bananas for a very long time after this adventure.

Yet again we get a police escort. Driving slowly behind us, ensuring our safety, never do they show any hint of boredom. Always ready to give us an encouraging smile, I am sure that they would rather do something more riveting even though the views are generally amazing. I am so touched when one of the policemen offer me an apple. I politely refuse, as I admit I am not to adept at eating and cycling, and keep cycling, focusing at keeping my pace. Shortly after the police car drives close to me, and the policeman offers me the same apple but this time neatly cut into bite size pieces, which he hands over to me bit by bit. I am so touched by this show of friendship that tears well in my eyes. I am not normally one who easily shows emotions but Lifecycle is changing that!.

Finally we are to enjoy a good downhill. The tarmac is perfect. The grip is just right for us to just go down as fast as possible, reaching speeds of 65kms/hour. Tony and Robert are well ahead of me, trying to catchup with them I sense there's something wrong. I stop and realise I have a flat tyre. The policemen promptly stop and motion me to get into the car. I obviously refuse and start changing the tyre. Robert, who has realised that I am not behind him stops and seeing the stationary police car, fears the worst and cycles back up to me at record speed. The relief on his face is so visible when he sees me and quickly moves me away from the bike and in a flash repairs the flat.

Rob flatly states that he will cycle with me, as he does not want to leave me alone. He is still recovering from the fright of seeing my bike on the floor, the policement standing next to it and me nowhere to be seen. Picking up a good pace we almost race off. We are in good time, and should make up for the lost time in the previous days. But our good spirits are soon deflated when I get an other flat tyre. Robert repairs its and we set up but get another one in the span of ten minutes. I am very upset as we are losing precious time. Alan drives up and stops the car. He and Robert are trying to change it as quickly as possible in order to save time. Shirley as always tries to encourage Robert to keep on cycling, advising him that he too is losing time even though it is not his puncture.

Soon we start seeing signs directing us to Avanos, a town set on the banks of f the Kizilirmak, the Red River, which gets its name from the clay that it deposits. This clay has provided Avanos with pottery for centuries and the town is still dominated by this industry despite the inroads that tourism has made in the area.

Rob and I literally fly towards our accomodation, picking up great speeds. I arrive there in a very foul mood. I have lost precious time because of flat tyres, and I know that I only get five minutes a day extra for flats – not exactly enough when you consider I had three in a span of fifteen minutes. I just dump the bike in the first empty space and then go in a corner to lick my wounds. All the effort has made my ankle swell considerably and is extremely painful to walk on. Dr. Steph, giving me anti-inflammatories and Carolyn doing physio, advise me not to go on the sightseeing tour but to rest my leg as much as possible.

Accomodation in Avanos

As has become the norm, we are visited by the Mayor of Avanos, who shows a great deal of interest in our endeavours. Alan explains, with Soner translating, the efforts that the Lifecycle team have put in over the years, efforts which leave a considerable impression on the Mayor and his delegation, who wish us Güle Güle - safe journey, with a smile.

Formalities done, I try to make the most of the sunshine and hang out my washing to dry - a welcome change to our attempts of drying our clothes in musty gyms. As I am out hanging my clothes, Alan tells me that I have gained an hour from my efforts today. I feel much better. It is only day six and a lot can happen in the coming five days. I need to relax and I should grab the opportunity to wind down and relax a bit. Having our accommodation in Avanos we are conveniently located within the triangle that delineates the roads connecting to the best sites in Cappadocia - the fairy chimneys and the rock cut churches in Goreme.

The great expanses of eroded, carved and shaped volcanic phallic-like symbols combined with the still dryness and omnipresent dust give an impression of barrenness. However this land is exceedingly fertile thanks to the volcanic tuff that forms the land. The weir formation of soft dusting rock have been shaped over the millennia surviving invading armies and indigenous people who have done their best to exploit the land's potential. What is amazing is that a feeling of time standing still and a sense of continuity is felt simply by looking at the still inhabited rock caves. Tourism has done its bit and a number of stalls selling local ceramics and souvenirs greet the tourists that flock the area.

As my ankle is swollen and is painful with every step I take, I miss out on the walkabout around the chimneys. Instead I sit down in the shade, sipping an ice cold Coca Cola with Space, Robert, Kola and Steph. From there, we move on to Goreme. Is an open air museum and is famous for having the few remaining Cappadocian settlements who rock cut houses and fair chimneys are still in habited. Unfortunately the village has not been spared from tourist development, which does spoil its character, with it's main street given over entirely to providing the tourist with souvenir shops, internet cafes, carpet shops and the always present tourist shops.

Once again, I find a comfortable place to sit on sofas and sip chai. This time I am joined by Willie, Hulya, Robert and Nigel. Sitting down and relaxing feels surreal. It has been such a long time since I had the luxury to stop for a moment and enjoy some relaxed banter. I almost feel guilty.

I said, "almost feel guilty, not guilty!"

This evening, even the Kitchen team take a well deserved rest, and after physiotherapy and Mass we all head towards the town centre where we are to have dinner which includes belly dancing and whirling dervishes. The practice of Sufi whirling is a twirling mediation that originated amongst the Turkish Sufis and which is still practiced by the Dervishes of the Mevlevi order. The ritual's aim is for the dervishes to try to desert their nefs', egos or personal, bad, desires by listening to their master and Sufi music, thinking about God. Although the food was that which is generally expected from a tourist trap and which left most of us trying to find the food on the plate, the whirling dervishes were the highlight of the evening!

Around 1030pm I limp back to the accommodation. I make sure my bike is ready for tomorrow and then set off to find a room, with a bathroom, far away from the madding snoring crowd. We don't' know what to expect tomorrow as the route hasn't been planned but if Lifecycle lives up to its reputation it will definitely not be an easy day!

All photos, unless otherwise stated, courtesy of Maria Vella-Galea