Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cul de sac for visa and the rush out of Europe

Cycling along the Danube cycling trails in Austria and Germany were so pleasant and enjoyable that that we were oblivious to the length of our stay in Europe until reminded of the 90 days visa limit that when we were in Heidelberg we were actually left with only about a week to leave or run foul of the visa regulations. Since trying to cycle out to take the ferry at Calais or Ostande would require a Herculean effort to cover that distance we decided to take the train out of Germany to Brussels in Belgium, and from there go to Ostande , take the ferry and cross over to England before the visa expires. After a few connections we managed to reach a small town Aalter, in Belgium not far from Ostende, where we were guests of Luc Van Parys . Luc who is a seasoned endurance motorcyclist is a good friend of Daniel from Prejmer, Romania (they share the same passion) at whose place we stayed for several days. Like Daniel, Luc who didn't know us until we met him, was also a wonderful host who put us up at his place in spite of his busy schedule at work. During our brief stay in Aalter, we enjoyed the company of Luc's sister and her husband at whose house we were treated to a sumptuous dinner and also meals prepared by his mother Beatrice Van Loocke .I was moved by the warmth displayed by Beatrice who could hardly speak any English, treated us like her own family. We also met some of Luc's friends, who were so warm and friendly, that when it was time to part it was an emotional affair.While we were told that we could apply for visa extensions at the countries we intended to stay, beyond the permitted period, we decided otherwise as our finances were depleting and we were already travel weary. We did not exit Europe from Ostende, but instead from Calais in France, as the ferry in Ostende do not take foot-passengers or cyclists. Luckily Luc was able to rush us out to Calais in a van supplied by a friend.
We reached the Ferry Terminal in Calais at about 5.00pm in gale force winds and were told that services were temporarily suspended and would only resume when the weather conditions improved. The Ferry finally left the port at 9.30pm and only reached Dover, some three hours later, although the journey normally takes only one and a half  hours. Well, what an anti climax to our cycling adventure one might say but for such a long journey, to reach good old England the way we did is really not too bad eh!.
We reached London on the 9th of June, one day before our European visa expired and are now staying in Barking , south east London. It is interesting to note that this is not the first time for me that I set foot in England. That happened more than 50 years ago in December 1961 and with a totally different mode of transport. That is another story. Back then I travelled by the jet-prop BOAC Comet that stopped at Calcutta (Kolkata), Karachi, Lebanon and Rome before finally reaching London. You can now fly non-stop direct from KL to London in less than 14 hours. How things have changed.
I couldn't help but feel elated and welcome when leaving the Ferry Terminal in Dover, I discovered that there were actually cycling lanes out of Dover. Unlike the Netherlands or Denmark, England is not known for its cycling culture, so to see positive signs of change towards cycling as a form of people movers, I know I have come to the right place and at the right time.
To give some insight to the seriousness of the promotion of cycling in London readers who have been following this blog must be made aware that prior to the election of the Mayor of London in early May, among the campaign pledges made by the eventual winner, Mr Boris Johnson and other Mayoral candidates were the safety issues of cyclists and improving the infrastructure to match that found on the continent and the needs of cyclists in London . The Big Ride,  ' Love London, Go Dutch' campaign that was held on 28th April
saw 10,000 people and about 1,000 volunteers taking part and 50,000 Pounds in sponsorship collected.To ensure that the effort of the cyclists is not futile, the organizers of the 'Love London, Go Dutch' campaign is making the assessment and monitoring the first 100 days in office of the Mayor against the performance of the key demands .How I wish a similar campaign can take place in Kuala Lumpur or Petaling Jaya and the Mayor be held accountable.
At the moment I have no concrete plans to what I shall do before the start of the Olympic Games but I have several options, like a cycling tour around London, say for a week followed by cycling around the British Isles or even go back to the continent to cycle there if that is possible. However, I must admit that to have made it this far and actually having achieved my objective, it is rather strange that I don't actually feel a sense of great achievement or satisfaction for the effort thus far. Perhaps the the inability to cycle that last sector in Europe, especially to the Netherlands, has something to do with the feeling of a slight disappointment. Nevertheless I shall continue to seek new frontiers in the pursuit of adventure. And what better way than to start my new adventure right here in LONDON.

The St Michael's ruins in Heidelberg is about 900 years old

This Nazi Amphitheatre is well hidden in the forest

A view of Heidelberg

Modern sculpture in Heidelberg

With Luc,brother-in-law Hendrik and sister Rita in Aalter

A passion for motorcycles

With Luc's mother, Beatrice Van Parys

Aalter 'beef' anyone?

Our new friends in Aalter

Ride and ride everywhere

A 4-hour delay at Calais Ferry terminal

The bicycles take a Ferry ride

The White Cliffs of Dover

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Nasi Lemak, Briyani and Rendang in Germany, We'd better get out fast or we may not want to leave

We left Munich and backtracked to Gersthofen and then on to Ulm spending some nights camping 'illegally' where and when convenient. As it had happened before, we never fail to come across generous and hospitable people along the way. Just to recall and mention a few incidents, here are some of the nice things that we will remember about Germany: There is quite a large Turkish population here with some of them arriving in Germany after World War Two to work in various sectors to rebuild the country and some who came later to join their countrymen. Many are also second or third generation German-born of Turkish descent and as such we find many food outlets selling Doner Kebabs and other Turkish dishes. While some of these outlets are also run by 'German' operators that may not sell the 'halal' versions we always ask around for the 'halal' joints to have our Kebabs. While these places are obviously operated by Muslims we were always comfortable eating at such places. We don't always announce what we do or from where we come but sometimes when they see us arriving with our fully loaded bicycles and when told where we are from and that we are muslims they always get very excited and would have their photographs taken with us and on more than one occasion would not charge us for the meals , and in some cases packed some other stuff for us to take along before we left.

On another occasion , while seeing us struggling up a steep hill near the village Burgas, a man stopped his car at his house nearby and then rushed up to us to offer a bottled drink taken from his car, and after hearing of our cycling adventure invited us to stop at his house for a rest and some refreshments. We spent some time there and two of his neighbours also joined in the conversations. Some gifts were also given to us before we left. We didn't mind being delayed somewhat as such incidents add a lot of meaning to our journey.When total strangers can be so warm and friendly why is it that back home there are people who do not value and appreciate our diversity.

Ulm is another town that has a special place in our hearts. Situated on the banks of the Danube the town straddles the river and known as Ulm and Neu Ulm. As the name suggests, Ulm is where the tourists flock to get the feel of the old world. Ulm boasts of many unique structures such as having the tallest church steeple in the world. It also has a hotel that is tilted so much so that all the rooms are individually renovated with unique fittings so as to maintain the horizontal needs of its occupants. As such the beds, chairs and tables would have legs of different lengths. It is said that the owners spent an incredible amount of money to save it from collapse and maintain it in its current form. I did not venture to ask the room rates because as they always say :' if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it '.

There is also a restaurant or a Steak House in town that is unique in the sense that it is run by an Italian and it is to me a 'mini' United Nations. The John Bentton Restaurant is owned by Luciano, an Italian, who started the restaurant fifteen years ago and among his staff are a head chef from Sri Lanka, and nationalities from various countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Vietnam , Myanmar, Turkey , Slovakia, and some others. We also had free steaks at his restaurant while in Ulm.

Not to be outdone was Heinz Klemm, a true son of Ulm, who took the time to show us around Ulm and gave us a guided tour to the various spots and well known places in town including the famous Lutheran church with the tallest tower in the world and an exclusive Art Gallery. To complete our sweet memories of Ulm we spent the last night as guests of Heinz and his lovely wife Sabine at their comfortable home, on a hill six kilometers out of town.

From Ulm we continued our journey to Heidelberg where we were met by
Elena, Amely and Rais Anderson. Elena and Amely are the daughters of my friend Sulaiman Aziz who is now back in PJ staying in the same neighbourhood as me. Sulaiman used to operate a Malay restaurant here but has since left Germany to try his hand at other ventures in Malaysia. Rais is the only Malaysian student in Heidelberg and also used to work at Sulaiman's restaurant. We were again lucky that Rais was able to put us up at his place and also showed us around Heidelberg. Like all cities,  towns and villages in Germany, each is proud of something special or unique that is not found elsewhere and Heidelberg can boast of the only castle ruins that was left untouched during World War Two and you have to see it to believe. It also has many other structures and features to be proud of. While here we were also lucky to witness a grand fireworks display that took place by the river and the castle . Thousands of people including tourists enjoyed the grand display that lasted about twenty minutes. And what better way to end our stay in Heidelberg than to enjoy 'rendang daging' cooked by Rais. Rais, an accomplished cook also used to cook at the restaurant run by Sulaiman. Rais whose father is Danish studied at Sri Hartamas before moving here and having lived and travelled widely in Europe, he would find it hard to readjust to the way of life of racially divided Malaysia should he decide to return and live in Malaysia.

Our visa validity is ending very soon and unless we are able to extend it we need to rush out of Europe quickly.

With Heinz and Luciano at John Benton Restaurant

The tilted hotel in Ulm

Ahmet and daughters at his Kebab outlet

With Heinz and Sabine

At a Kebab outlet

The Church with the tallest tower in Ulm

A man's contribution to his town

With Bruce 'Luciano' Willis of Ulm

With Rais Anderson in Heidelberg

The Old 1925 Chevy

And the new Stretched Limo

The Castle in Heidelberg

The well hidden Nazi Amphitheater in Heidelberg

Heidelberg viewed from the hills

The ruins of St Michael's is about 900 years old

The Fireworks display

At the longest pedestrian walk

And don't forget to stop and smell the flowers