Location: Rishikesh, India
Picture this: Your in the Vatican city on Easter Monday and the big fella himself is just about to step out in front of the gigantic gold laced alter that no doubt inhabits the holy city. A whole gaggle of young boys on the threshold of not being boys are praising the glory of the lord in shill voices and there is a hush of anticipation among the devout thousands who have gathered to celebrate the resurrection of their savior. But instead of a respectful silence as Ben totters up the steps, there is a gasp of shock, a sharp intake of breath as people realise that blazened across his chest is not the standard array of colourful drapes, rosaries and a crucifix, but a giant swoosh symbol - a homage to the undying religion of consumerism.
The Hindu equivalent of this is taking place right at this moment in Rishikesh, where we've been hanging out for the past few days. We've managed to time our visit to perfectly conicide with the hindu equivalent of a hillsong convention. There are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people (mainly young men) milling the streets and ghats of the Ganges, beating drums and shouting out something equivalent to "Shiva Shiva Shiva, Oi! Oi! Oi!" as they fill up their bottles with sacred ganga water to take back to their home towns, or as far as they can manage.
Like anything done in India, the festival is done on scale Hillsong could only dream of and is heavily sponsored by India Inc - or in this case USA inc - Nike and Reebok. The standard uniform of the Shiva-loving youth (and not so youth) seems to be orange reebok pants, orange shirt depicting Shiva (and the swoosh symbol) and a black nike bumbag. Of course, intellectual property being what it is in India (highly communalised) it could be that some entrepreneurial clothes makers have unilaterally decided to print a few million fake reebok pants and cash in on the brand recognition, but the extent, and organisation of the branding would seem to suggest something a little more sinister.
From a marketing point of view, you couldn't want much more - they are the perfect demographic (young, impressionable and presumably with enough cash to leave their homes for a few weeks to go on a pilgrimage) they are completely conspicuous (being a colour which is only a gnats whisker off saftey vest orange) and the conventions of the pilgrimage demand that people walk (that's right WALK) hundreds and hundreds of kilometers from wherever they live, to the 'source' of the ganges, to gather their sacred water.
The great thing about pilgrimages, however is that there's always a certain flexibility in the unwritten rules of pilgrimaging. Some people go all the way to glacier where the ganges emerges from the himalays, others opt only for Rishikesh, the last big city before the hills. While most walk, some ride bikes, and I've definately seen a few people drive. I'm pretty sure that for the time strapped executive there's probably also an online pilgrimage, where you can click on the places you would have walked to, and buddy up with your exec friends via facebook to reminice about past online pilgrimages. I wonder, if Nike and Reebok are emblazened all over the websites as well....
Location: Not on a boulder, France
Some things in life simply defy explanation. The popularity of Justin Timberlake for instance, is a completely mystery to me. So too is the absence of seats on French Toilets (I mean who steals a toilet seat, really? Do they do it on purpose, just to spite the English?). But more immediately preoccupying than JT or le toilletes at present is how you can suddenly end up with a broken rib without any recollection of falling, banging or being struck by anything at all.
No, its not like you might think. I did NOT wake up on the floor of my tent after a few too many bottles of quality French wine (or even cheap French wine for that matter). Nor was it a valiant effort at a highball font testpiece attempted sans mats and spotters. It came on gradually over a few days (not with a bang but a whimper you could say) like a bad flu; the runny nose, the tickle in the throat, the sore head, until, gradually you realise youve been struck down by the dread lurgi (or in my case, the dreaded fractured vebreto-sternal.
Whats even stranger, is that this seems to be a recurring injury for me. I had a similar injury when I was living in Laos a few years ago, which also seemed to come on over a few days without any good cause. Calcium deficiency? Crushing font slopers too hard? Aliens? Someone help me out here, please!
As far as timing goes though, I couldnt have picked a better time to break a rib really. Ive been lucky enough to have three awesome weeks here at Font and now I suppose Ive got a month in India to rest it before coming home
Location: The Forests of Fontainebleau, France
I think Im in love. Hes a 60 year old French man called Pierre. Or possibly Frederic. Simon? Jean Claude even? Im not really sure because they usually dont tell you their names. In fact they usually dont speak at all. They are called Bleausards, and they are truly one of the most beautiful sights in the world.
It might seem a strange thing to call beautiful. Being on average about 60 years old, seemingly always men, with grey, balding hair and (typically shirtless) sagging sacks of skin over thin wirey bodies, they wouldnt exactly turn eyes on the catwalks of Paris. But on the boulders of Fontainebleau, where they have been painstakingly perfecting the art of bouldering for generations, its another story completely.
Meandering through the forest from problem to problem, these rock Yogis will wander past you as youre bouldering, possibly with a polite smile, but often without, they will gently place their tiny little carpet in front of a boulder (sometimes even the problem you are trying) carefully wipe the sand off their boots, dab the rock with an ancient sack of resin and gently caress the rock with their fingers. This is where the magic begins.
They do not simply climb a rock. No, that would be far too common, far too vulgar, far too un-French. They float, dance and glide across the rock. Feet on invisible smears, hands gently moulding into slopers, dishes, crimps you can hardly see. And when they do pull on to a climb, what you thought was just a sagging sack of flesh, is suddenly alive with a seething mass of perfectly sculpted muscles, flowing like ribs of satin across their backs.
And then they leave, as silently and methodically as they came, plodding on to the next problem in the circuit, leaving a wake of stunned climbers staring after them, as if they have seen a ghost. I have witnessed very very good climbers, people who are regularly attempting Font eights absolutely gobsmacked after watching a Bleausard climb a six or a seven.
Of course, when you actually try to pull on to the holds they were using or copy the sequence they used, you will typically find the holds are invisible and the sequence has somehow dissolved from your memory because it was simply one you would never have conceived of using, or if you can remember it, it defies the laws of possible human movement.
From time to time, if you are extremely lucky, they will stop and give you pointers on what your doing wrong, or point out a few problems you hadnt even seen because there doesnt appear to be any useable holds around. But after some patient coaching, the holds will begin to appear, the moves will gradually become conceivable and, as you begin to get the smallest glimpse of an insight into what it feels like to climb like a Bleausard, you are so powerfully reminded that what you climb and how hard you climb is nowhere near as important as how beautifully you climb.
Location: Fontainbleau, France
Some things in French just arent translatable into English. There are the classics of course - fait a compli and tete a tete for instance - which just arent imbued with the same antiquities as their literal translations (fancy a head to head anyone?). Then theres the French words which seemingly have no sister word in English - connoisseur entrepreneur (made famous by the late ungreat George Bush who proclaimed that a key problem with the French was that they have no word for entrepreneur
) and have as such been abducted by the English about as successfully as their efforts to capture the holy grail in that Monty Python classic. But like a classic Agatha Christie the worst culprits are usually the words you least suspect. The biggest and brightest of which is undoubtedly that innocuous verbal handshake: Bonjour.
Literal gurus will tell you its translation is something like good day, but if you said this to some one in English youd no doubt feel so ridiculously British and ancient that you might has well have said Jolly good show old sport as you chase some poor fox on the estate. Dictionaries usually go for the more universal Hello but heading down this road leaves you all at once short changed and hollow. Hello? Hello? Its something youd cough tentatively down a well. A question, which, if youre very lucky you might get a dull echo of response but more often it tends to just fade away into the darkness.
Bonjour on the other hand is like a delicious hearty vegetable soup served with a baguette tradition just removed from the oven. Hearty, rounded and satisfying, it can be used as a greeting, a farewell, or simply a sign of friendly acknowledgement. The other day, for instance as we were riding out of town, the clouds opened up and, as is seemingly very common around these parts, it wasnt sun that poured out, but high quality Fontainebleau rain. Just ahead was a guy I couldnt feel more sorry for. Totally soaked, with nothing but a t-shirt and shorts, he was trying to thumb a ride to the next town. It was going to be a very generous person, or someone with an uncharacteristically dilapidated car (which dont seem to exist in France) who was going to give him a lift, so it seemed he could be waiting for quite a while. Feeling that we were somehow in the same wet, cold boat, I nodded him a quick Bonjour to him as I passed. The smile on his face, from even my quick bjour, was sunny enough to dry clean him on the spot. I couldnt help but feel that if Id said hello, he probably would have said so what?
If there is one thing the french have perfected its the art of silent letters. We english speakers might think weve got it down with our gnomes and our knives, but the French have taken unnecesary characters to the next level. Not only do they have these wacky things on top of the words- ^^^^o èù (which ive been assured by more than one french speaker are mostly remnants from the past used to confuse foreigners) but whenever possible they try to avoid pronouncing the end of the word, and half of the middle as well. Take "Presles" for instance - a stunning wee town we stayed in in the Vercors. We were pretty sure we had the pronunciation pretty wrong with our attempt "pray lay" but it took some old frenchie who generously gave us a lift up the hill one day to let us know it is qctually pronounced something like "Prel". Now thats not one; not two, but three COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY letters in there. Now of course some may just lable me an ignorant foreigner with a bad accent, but personally I think its high time someone dusted the old guillotine off and brought French into the twentyfrst century.
so aside from getting thoroughly confused by french words, weve mainly been eating smelly cheese, going on patiseerie crawls and finding large rocks to clamber all over in the incredible forests of Fontainebleau with Ben and Al, who just hapened to be here as well.
So france, glorious France. And indeed it is, or would be, if we
Location: The Pyrenees, France
So, the Pyrenees. In short, we crushed them in a day and a half. I,m not sure what all the hype is about. I mean beautiful? Of course, absolutely stunning. But where were all the massive hills we were promised, the trecherous 15 deg plus slopes streching on and on. Aching calves begging for a rest from hills so steep your hardly moving. Tour de France, bring it on, we'll do it in a day.
Amazing how as soon as you enter France your arrogance just increases on the spot, just like that. Suddenly you no longer need to say please and thankyou, you walk around like you've been dressed by a fashion god/ess and your culinary prowess would make Jamie Oliver look like the tuckshop lady.
The other amazing thing about entering France is that you immediately develop a French accent, just like that.Just as we rode over the final pass into France (with not so much as a Bienvenue a France, Au revoir Espagnol or anything of the sort, just a lame road sign telling us that French people are allowed to drive 10 kilometres faster on the freeway than Spanish people) our accents immediately shifted (and Ive got a video to prove it) The other thing which automatically changed was the language everyone else speaks. It might seem obvious but there is somethign very weird about riding down a hill and suddenly realising your not in Kansas any more Dorothy (or even Spain for that matter) and you can't understand a word anyone says, while 5 ks before you were chatting with the locals like you'd lived there for years and toasting the victory of Barcelona on the weekend.
Seriously, even with our incredible French accents we STILL didn't pass as Frenchies. Weird hey.
The other weird thing here is the keyboards. Clever Frenchies have taken your standard keyboard that the rest of the romanesque languages use and modified it just slightly, not too much, but just enough to make you THINK you can still type like normal qnd qnnoy teh shit out of you zhen you find out thqt your elail hqs co,e out looking likd this1.
But assside from that, and the fact that everything costs even more than it did in Spain, France is really aa cool place and French people, despite the stereotypes (which I have shamelesslely added too above) really are very friendly.Oh, and the other thing, you know all the stereotypes about little french stone villages, old french ,en cycling to the bagueterrie every day; stripey shirts and beautiful meandering country roads withe vineyards on every side;;; They're absolutely TRUE! Really, its stunning.
Location: Siurana, Spain
Welcome to spain, land of crap internet, great views, awesome rock and exceptionally cheap wine. 1 euro a bottle is hard to beat when you´re on an Australian dollar induced budget of about 12 euros a day.
Fortunately with a bit of ducking behind bushes we´ve managed to camp without paying most nights and have only spent two nights in a hotel the entire time we´ve been here. The past few nights on the road we managed to find old buildings to shelter in or around. There absolutely everywhere in spain - 300 year old building here, 2000 year old castle there, just rotting away in a field somewhere waiting for impoverished cyclists to come along and move a few old roofing tiles off the floor so they can crash for the night - does no one think to clean these old ruins up a bit, the place is a bloody shambles. Of course in Australia they´d all be historic tourist attractiosn, but here there are so many of them the locals must just think they´re a nuisance sitting their in the middle of their olive groves. What I can´t get over is the fact that at some point someone must have just sat down and gone "you know what, I´m a bit sick of living in this plush 6 bedroom house, let´s move somewhere else." And left their fancy mansion, probably in pretty good condition, and built a house somewhere else. Of course, the several decades of civil war and Franco-induced repression may have had something to do with it, but it still seems a bit weird that there are houses, in not too terrible condition, which would have been in great condition 30, 50, 80 years ago, just rotting away in the fields.
Sometimes we´re even lucky enough to find old mattresses to chuck under the tent to give a bit of a break from the thermarests and let our sleeping injuries heal a little. It must be a good thing when you´re on a cycling and climbing trip and the worst injuries you sustain come from sleeping on a thermarest. Oh, that and the knees, which have been petitioning me for several days to have a rest from cycling and have finally been granted their wish courtesy of a few days climbing in the amazing hills of Montsant at a place called Siurana.
Like everywhere in Spain it seems, Siurana is an old castle town, a tiny village pirched at the end of penisular on top of a cliff in the most inaccessible place imaginable. Fortunately for us that means that aside from the 15 degree hils we had to climb to get up here, we can now walk to all the climbing and leave our bikes panting under the shade of the pine trees.
So today we´re even having a break from climbing as the great god of weather has decided it will rain for most of the morning and possible the afternoon. A bit of a shame as it´s our last day here before we head down to Barcelona and onto Francia.
Till then, Adieu.