Completing the cycling circle

I wrote two more posts for fitisafeministissue on my cycling trip:

Why do a self-guided trip?

From Riga to Tallinn: Why I Chose a Self-Guided Cycle Tour

And some practical lessons from my cycling experience.

Self-guided cycle touring:  10 Practical Tips

And now I’m home!

Working away, work work work.

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Meza Salas to Ainazi (76.5 km)


Pushing my bike into motion on the gravel roads this morning took a force of will.  It was raining, and the soft loose gravel was even less appealing wet than it was yesterday.  I had said no when the woman serving me breakfast had offered to drive me to the nearest town to get past the gravel roads.  Once again, Latvians prove to be the nicest people on earth — this is one of the few  times I’ve encountered when someone offering to help me while cycling actually suggests something useful to a cyclist’s logic.  I toyed with the idea, but my completist self prevailed.  Unlike guided trips, I’d planned this one with no transfers after the train to Sigulda.  And I was going to do it.

Anda had made me a vast breakfast, and I tucked away a cheese sandwich in my pocket. Something told me it might be useful.  I only had one small coffee, envisioning a 15 km wet gravel road ride into Limbazi, then finding a sweet café for coffee and a pastry.  Earned.

The rain made the gravel roads around the farmland less harrowing than yesterday, tamping them down a bit.  I sailed along at a soggy, rapid-for-the-terrain 18 km /hour.  The rain made it chilly, but the roads were nicely Nordic.  White birches, brooding forests.

After about 14 km, I began to squint at the directions from the bike tour company.  Hm.  It didn’t look like I was supposed to go into Limbazi.  What about my cakes and coffee?

I looked at the actual map and decided it was fine if I veered off course.  I turned right, eager for my treats.  It’s Monday, surely this little town would have a place for me to warm up, a little fire.  It started pouring and gusting wind as I rode up and down the streets.  One sign I thought meant “cafe” turned out to be a clothing store, not open.  An apothecary, small grocery store, tire shop.  Rain streaming off my helmet, I asked a man holding his hood over his head as he talked on the phone — “coffee?” — he pointed down, mimed a hill,  I went in that direction and… everything looked tight shut against the rain.

I remember having this experience in Iceland thinking there would be a sweet little bakery with cakes whenever I wanted it.  But the population just didn’t support it.  I rode out of Limbazi, having seen little of what my cycling guide writer had described as “the spirit of Limbazi.”  Unless that spirit was “stay in the damn house it’s horrible out.”

I cycled  back to the junction and realized that I was actually quite cold. “Surely there must be a tea shop somewhere along here, the main route to the sea?”  I didn’t see one, but pulled into a small food shop.  I mimed tea.  The woman took me to a section of teabags.  I looked sad, and indicated my warmer shirt.  “May I?”  She let me change in the room full of soda and freezers, pretending to check something on the other side of the room in case I was not what I appear.  What do I appear?

I left the shop with a warmer shirt and dry raincoat on, minus tea.  I spent at least the next 10 minutes of the ride thinking about nothing but the sheer pleasure of a warm dry shirt when you are cold and wet.

I rode that road for another 40 km without encountering another pedestrian or a sign of commerce of any kind.  A white stork walking slowly across the road, more birch, fields of hay and canola, purple thistle, tall huge stork nests.   The roads are pristine, without a single mar of litter.

At around the 45 km mark, I accepted that there was going to be no coffee, no tea, no little cakes.  I pulled off to the side of the road and ate my pilfered cheese sandwich standing up over my bike, a handful of dried apricots I’d brought with me.  The rain had mostly stopped, and I consulted the directions and the map again.  Hm.  More gravel coming on this road,, and instructions to turn onto an even lesser gravel road for about 18 km.

I rebelled.

I looked at the actual map, and deduced that the secondary cycling route had me continuing on this road to the coast.  The mapped route from my bike tour company had me crossing fields and a river and coming into the town for the night on another gravel road.  I did some math and concluded that continuing straight to the coast on this road equalled less gravel.  “Surely there must be a bike route up the coast?” I thought.

The thing about traveling at all, and riding in particular, is that you really really have to accept what is.  It’s a constant theme with me — probably the thing I have to engage with most when I travel. You can plan your ASS off and you will have imperfect clothes, a bike load that feels off balance, a blithe instruction that says “take a train” that actually requires about 12 steps to decode and do.  You can’t travel by bike or in unexpected places and expect perfect flow.  (I can’t remember how many times our car broke down in Uganda on the same route).  But somehow, I still feel pegged to certain aspects of my planning — like following the route set out by the bike company, even though I am ALONE on my bike in Latvia, I have a map, and I know my destination.

So when I got to the turn, I paused.  It looked sinky. I stayed on the road I was on.  13 km to Saulkrasti, it said, where I would turn and head north along the coast.

I’m not gonna lie:  the road I stayed on was not easy.  Corrugations, soft sand tugging at my back wheel, logging trucks, the constant frogger dance of trying to find the one line that was steadier than the others.  Intermittent rain.  And then the road became asphalt again, and I finally came to a junction — and the sign for Saulkrasti — my last hope for a cheese bialy, a coffee — pointed one way, and the cycling route the other.  I tried to google map but google has not yet located cycling routes for the Latvian/Estonian border area.  I went with the little blue “cycling route 7” as the sun came out.  65 km or so, still no stop, more than 3.5 hours.

I rode and it became town, and I crossed the A1, the main Baltic highway.  Two lanes, but fast.  I rode through the town and found a lighthouse, took my photo on thr edge of the Baltic Sea — and yet, still no tea shop.  “I’m almost at Ainazi,” I thought.  “There I shall find solace.”  I start to think in broken, archaic English on the bike after a while.

I poked myself north, and realized I was joining the Autostrada.  That can’t be good.  Many trucks, speeding cars.  But wait — a sweet bike lane alongside it!

I zipped along the bike lane for four or five kilometres, avoiding bleary and presumably hungover teenagers carrying creeping bags that had escaped their moorings, backpacks.  A few trying to hitchhike, a whack on a bus, several dropping their stuff in the path.  Two girls walking barefoot in the gravel, holding their shoes, on the other side of the highway crying a little.  The residue of a music festival or something

I’m preening over the wisdom of the Latvians for making this beautiful bike path, this perfect accompaniment to the busy highway, wondering why we can’t do this.  When it stops.  For the next 8 km or so, I straddle the not-quite-shoulder, try not to be blown away by the trucks.  Try to decide if this is better than the sinking gravel roads on the planned route.

There is no way to know.  There only is.

My hotel is one km from the Estonian border, in a small fishing village. Suddenly it’s sunny with blue skies. I am covered in mud that won’t come off in one shower and damp, unciviled in this clean, quiet, friendly hotel. There’s a cosy restaurant, and a nice woman at the desk. I order fish and vegtables and a small beer, shower, come down and sink into my meal, a cosy chair. Two older women who followed their lunches with a beer each toast me.

Later, I find a shop selling ice cream and walk around eating it. I think one house is haunted and abandoned until I hear a baby cry in front of it. I’m just tired enough to let the thought that it’s a ghost baby wash over me. But it’s too sunny and the town has a sleek wind-powered energy supply, and Latvians are too nice to let ghost babies take over their towns.

Riga 1

I make decisions about travel the way I decide everything, from buying clothes to getting a kitten:  I ponder the question in the back of my mind, sort of surreptitiously picking up information by osmosis and letting nagging worries emerge — then I just sort of impulsively pounce.   That’s certainly how I bought my last two cars, and how I ended up with my kitten Georgia.  (“You had to get a kitten on a Wednesday?  You couldn’t wait until the weekend?” Asked my gently exasperated business partner when I was facilitating a meeting on no sleep.)

I plan my traveling the same way. I get a place into my head, I sort of shape what I want to happen, then I make a bunch of decisions without carefully weighing most of the options. I end up with this weird paradox of really precise planning (how to maximize Aeroplan points, the exact seat on the plane I want, a detailed itinerary for the bike riding part of my trip, the right visas), and some surprisingly vague bits.

This trip is about 17 days, and half of it is a solo bike ride from Riga to Tallinn. I let a bike touring company map the route for me and book the hotels for the riding part, and other than that I’m on my own. I booked my own trip to St. Petersburg, learned some bike mechanics and first aid (which I weirdly used at Pearson to help a woman who fell and cracked her kneecap), and agonized over what to pack that I can carry. But in that flurry of planning, I realized I hadn’t looked at all at the hotels the bike company had booked for me until I was in the taxi from the Riga airport.  I looked up what the Lonely Planet said about my hotel — basically, “don’t confuse this well located but spartan and worn out former convent with the really cosy lovely former convent next door.”

I had one deep burst of disappointment, that kind of “I did it WRONG, this is going to be terrible!” moment.  That surge of regret that indicates a kind of grasping attachment.  Why wasn’t I in the perfect hotel, the one with the cosy alcoves for curling up and reading?

And then I paused and remembered.  It’s never perfect.  And it’s always just right.  I do all this traveling for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important ones is about slowing me down and reminding me to be here, now — truly embrace what I’m given in the most improvisational spirit.  Not trying to control the experience by planning, the perfect packing, the choreographed moments.  It’s about being present to what is, be here now — and letting myself sink into it. It makes me whole and it’s utterly restorative, when I find that space.

I’ve written before about how fancy hotels make me a big edgy because I always fixate on the imperfections, whether I’m really getting from it enough to justify the cost.  My room in this former convent is just fine — it’s clean, it’s comfortable, the water is hot, it was the perfect place to have that jet lagged nap where they could have taken my tonsils out and I wouldn’t have noticed.

I woke up from that nap and went for a cobblestoned walk.  The rain had stopped by my brain was still fogged.  My watch wouldn’t sync and I didn’t know what time it was, but I was hungry.  I walked past a restaurant right next to the spartan convent hotel  that has a symbol, not a name, with a sign for wild and organic food.  I walked out of the old town, past a bunch of touristy and traditional food restaurants, past the opera house that seems to have no performances in July, over a bridge.  Made space for the different impulses to come together.  You’re in the Baltics.  You need to slow down and focus.  You need to read Anna Karenina finally, before you go to Russia.

I went back to my hotel and picked up my ipad.  Anna Karenina has been on my kobo app for a while.  I went back to the organic restaurant and talked to the waiter about what his favourites were.  I ordered the five course tasting menu and ate it while being introduced to Stiva, Anna, Dolly, Levin, Kitty.  It was.. sublime.

Unchoreographed means room for serendipity.  And veal, wild mushrooms, asparagus, beetroot ravioli, tiny venison pies.  Caramel done 5 ways, including “snow.”  The letting go to let in.