By Joan Joesting-Mahoney
It is quite well known that I don't "do" mountains as I have lived, run, cycled in flat sea level area all my life. However, after having done 11 supposedly flat countries, I have run out of them. Also, I had seen coverage of the floods in the Czech Republic on network TV and decided that I would do the perimeter of Czech Republic. Also, since Slovakia bordered the Czech Republic, I thought that would be fun, too. Each January, I begin making preparations for my summer country perimeters. I have to order maps, Lonely Planet Guidebooks, and spend hours on-line trying to find cheap airfare which fits my schedule. Every year, as soon as I have given my last final exam complete with individual student conferences, I'm flying across the Atlantic.
This past summer was no exception. However, the airlines can get away with cancelled flights "due to the international situation" so I got to spend the night in the Vienna Airport. International airports now have armed guards patrolling so they are one of the safest places to sleep. Of course, I had my camping mattress and a sleeping pad so I had a nice night. At the airport information center, I had obtained the bus schedule to Bratislava, Slovakia, and so the next morning, I had my bicycle and luggage on the bus. The bus driver informed me in good English that it was my bike so I must load it and did so.
At the Slovakian border crossing, a guard came and took our passports. Mine was stamped without comment. But the Bratislava bus station was crowded with drunk men who quickly gathered around me yelling something directly into my face. I knew that Europeans do not have the same personal space distance that Americans do according to the science of proxemics; nevertheless, I don't like the smell of alcohol and was glad that I couldn't understand what these men were saying. Quickly, I learned to take off my jacket and make a fist showing the results of my 26 years of power lifting. The men glared and left for parts unknown. But I still had to get directions north out of the city. As Richard DeBernardis says, "the right person always shows up at the right time," and this was true throughout my trip.
I saw a pair on a tandem who spoke excellent English and gave me directions north following the map previously approved by Scott Shipman. It is my habit when doing country perimeters to bike until I get tired and then use the guidebook to find an inexpensive place to stay. But that night the camping grounds were closed but again the right person showed up, a young Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry who found me a place to stay. The next night was even worse as the hotel recommended by the guidebook was upstairs and there were many "creepy" people standing around who looked as if they wanted my bike. Last year, I had had a bicycle stolen in England and have become very protective of my bike and even "decorated" it with duct tape on the frame to make it appear to be patched. This was duly noticed by many people who wanted to know how I broke it.
But again, I needed a place to stay but couldn't leave my bike even locked as my panniers were vulnerable. So I searched for another hotel, found it, but again more creeps. Again, a wonderful woman appeared with her male escort in a beautifully ironed shirt. The Slovakians impressed me with their well cared for very fashionable clothing. All the women wore stockings even with sandals and I was told by one woman that Americans don't care how they look. She was looking at me dressed in my usual stained cycling jersey and knee saving cycling knickers. No, I was not and have never been a "fashion plate."
Meanwhile, a drunk male beside the hotel was waving money in my face and even though I am very naive, I decided that he wasn't being friendly. The woman with her male escort and some other people formed a parade and we marched back to the hotel where she went inside and said that they had a room. Then, I had to carry my bike, then the panniers, up the stairs. which I did for all the nights that I stayed in Slovakia. The hotel turned out to be quite nice with a scrumptous breakfast buffet with three Englishmen eating near me. This was the last native speaker English I was to hear in 2 weeks.
The terrain was becoming more and more mountainous and I developed my "mountain feet." Whenever I bike in mountains, I have to walk pushing the bike up the mountain passes and holding onto it while we descend. Having inherited bad feet, anyway, I get horrible blisters that are even worse than when I run ultra marathons and the pain becomes almost unbearable. Last year, in England, I was able to get special band aids for bad toes but since I couldn't speak the language, I couldn't find these even when I showed my suffering smelling feet to a chemist. Next year, I will wear cycling sandals and bring proper bandages
Always in the evening, I went barefoot and wore a dress to combat saddle sores even at a camp ground. where there was only about $1 US difference between putting up a tent or having a nice cabin with ensuite bath. Since I hate tent camping, the decision was easy. Outside another cabin , there were some Poles playing badminton. Now, I was the badminton champion in junior high some 50 years ago so I played badminton, never minding my stiff legs and blisters "thrilled" by my going barefoot. .
But I had a perimeter to do. For some reason, the weather and traffic are always worst in the mountains.. When I get in a tight situation, I just keep riding knowing that there is shelter somewhere ahead. One day, the rain was so awful that even wearing priceless Gore-Tex jacket and pants, I wanted to quit the perimeter and get a bus out of the Slovakia but I knew that for every bad day there are many good days
And there were perfect days which are usually rest days when I stay in the same place for two days and "play"being a tourist. I stayed near the city square where they had choirs singing, folk singers, and a wedding which I "crashed." The church door was open so I followed another woman inside and listened to the priest, in Slovakian which I couldn't understand, lecture the couple for an hour. I also went to a fair where I met a young Slovakian man who had studied English for six years. He insisted that President Bush had tortured people. I told him about that nice tax refund my husband and I had received and that I liked that kind of torture.
And then there was the Cyber cafes. The Internet is my lifeline and I can e-mail from any computer that has Internet Explorer. I got all kinds of stares while using Slovakian and later Czech Republic computers because I was the only older person there even laughing at the jokes I was reading.
I just adjusted to the mountains and mountain feet knowing that Slovakia was only 800 (get mileage) around. It was almost a miracle when it flattened and I was now only 100 k from Bratislava. I did spend the night at a yacht club on the Danube and inside my head "The Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz" played. I found the best bicycle shop in the world where every screw on my bike was tightened and the owner of the shop took a photo of me and put it on the Net. Yes, I will be back to visit my friends when I do the perimeter of Hungary next summer as it is on the Slovakian-Hungarian border.
But I had a perimeter to finish and the Czech Republic to do. My last day in Slovakia was flat and was a very nice 100 k (62.2 mile ride). I followed the Bratislava map in the Lonely Planet Guide to the bus station where I finished the perimeter and duly noted the finish time. The bus station was crowded with people around it but I had no one with whom to celebrate. Besides, I had to get to the train station so that I could begin the perimeter of the Czech Republic.
I took a train from Bratislava to near the Czech Republic border and rode to Hodonin and again, I tried to find the camp ground listed in the guidebook. It was getting dark and I try to never ride after dark. I saw some police officers looking at a muscle magazine at a convenience store. I showed off my "great" muscles and explained in "fractured" German (this is widely understood in Czech Republic and Slovakia) that I needed a place to spend the night. They explained that I had to follow their police car and I did so. They took me to the Hotel Krystal which proved to be very nice.
The next day I had an almost perfectly flat ride but that was the last time. The Czech Republic is surrounded by endless mountains causing terrible pain to my mountain feet which never healed until I arrived home and had no more mountains. I was getting much encouragement from Scott at Perimeter Cycling and from my husband via e-mail.
I decided that the only way I was going to do the perimeter of the Czech Republic was to force myself to cover at least 50 miles each day with one rest day per week. And I did so and I believe that I become a better person because of it.
Bicycling was easier after I sent my tent and sleeping bag home; however communicating with the Czech Postal workers was another story. Constantly trying to lighten my panniers, I sent packages of gifts home, too. At the post office, I would draw a crude picture of an airplane and then cross it out trying to explain that I wanted my package to go "surface" instead of by air which would be much more expensive. Then, I would draw a boat and the worker seemed to understand. It took me a long time to realize that since the Czech Republic is a land-locked country, it could not go by boat. Remember up until this summer I had always done perimeters of countries with sea coasts and I have usually lived on either the Atlantic or Gulf Coast of the US. Old habits die hard.
Even with the mountains, I came to love the Czech Republic and the people. Most of them had never seen an American before and I know I was not a good American for them to see. If they could speak English, I was always questioned as to my age, kilometers per day, why I was bicycling the frontiers of their country as they called it, and always was asked why I wasn't afraid. I have been asked these questions countless times on my trip and always have the answer a question with a question. "Do their men attack women?" Never has anyone answered yes.
But yes, I get lonely at the end of all my perimeters when I have no one with whom to celebrate. After days , miles, I bicycled again into Hodonin and followed the signs to Hotel Krystal. I was so happy! After doing a "walk about" in Hodonin, I found the Cyber Cafe and happily e-mailed all my friends. But I wanted a hug and not even I could go up to stranger and beg a hug! I'm weird but not that weird. Ha! So I e-mailed Mary Ramba my best friend in Florida telling her that I had to have a hug.She e-mailed me immediately and I felt her hug, the first cyber hug ever.
The next morning I had to get a train to Vienna where I stayed three days in a youth hostel going to all the museums, including the Freud Museum. Of course, there was a train to the airport and I asked some missionaries at the youth hostel where I was staying to pray that I would have a boring flight home and I did but not before I ate breakfast with the Hungarian crew of the Rolling Stones who were touring Europe.
A Slovakian in a line at the Vienna Airport was very surprised that I hadn't been robbed in Slovakia which I was thought was a nice thing to know. Ha!
My most dangerous moment on the entire trip was when I was driving a rental car home from the Miami Airport and as I was jet lagged went to sleep. Fortunately, a road raged driver honked and woke me up and I arrived safely home ready to do more perimeters of Palm Bay and to teach the second six weeks summer session.
My wish is that everyone plan and do perimeters throughout the world. Yes, I'm going to head east, again, next summer, and will do the perimeters of Hungary which is said to be flat and Slovenia which is 600 miles of mountains