Friday, May 30, 2008

Running around

The Team

Self portrait
A dog's life

A loud explosion signals the start. There is jostle of bodies and those that arrived late sidle towards the fences and climb into position. The mass of people begin to move towards the large arch ahead. Like grains of sand flowing through an hour glass, the mass spreads as they pass the starting line and the little tag on my shoe tells a computer to start the timer. I start slowly, not to use up my precious energy too early. The pace is comfortable, my thoughts drift to other things as we pass some magnificent buildings and through the first tunnel. By this time anyone I had intended to run with is lost in the sea of pounding feet, each trying to overcome the physical challenge of keeping this up for 20 km. I see the first drinks station and aim for it. By now the sun is beating down hard, my body is starting to feel the heat. I reach for the bottle of water only to have it snatched by another runner, I reach for the next one. Finally! I quickly pour the contents over my head without stopping. At this point I feel pretty good until I notice the first distance marker: 5 km. Without a watch I think I have been going for ages and must be at least half way there! No such luck... I reel in the kilometers, each time looking for the sign, the road curves left and right, up and down, through a tunnel and past a lake. The sound of various bands and musicians can be heard along side the road, this gives me a much needed boost and the will to keep running. As I pass the 10 km sign I keep telling myself, okay, next will be the 11, then 12 then 13 and hey, before you know it 15! The only thing I didn't anticipate was the ever increasing pain building in my legs. At that point I tell myself, okay, just a bit of pain, just put up with it for an hour and it will all be over. So I continue. The sight of semi and unconscious runners on the side of the road and ambulance sirens blaring around me scares me a bit and I focus on how I am feeling. Am I loosing it? Do I really feel ok? I think so? But I don't want to end up like that! Keep going. 15 km comes and goes, then 16, 17 and there is a hill. I battle on, a large sign at the top of the hill tells me that there are only 2 km to go. By this stage the road is lined both sides by spectators, there presence spurs me on and I step up the pace. With the finish in sight my legs feel like rubber bands, I'm kind of bouncing along, no real control but it doesn't matter, I pass under the arch again. The sand clock is now in reverse as most of the 28,000 people, 56,000 feet and 280,000 toes mass together as everyone slows to a walk after crossing the finishing line. I struggle to remain upright, leaning on the mass of people around me. I hobble off to nurse my legs and relax, I made it, I did it without walking. I achieved my goal, so, what next? We'll see...


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Can I camp on your lawn?

Graffiti in Sarajevo (BiH is Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Rather artistic but deadly rocket splatter
Heavily damaged but inhabited buildings

The modern face of Sarajevo
The Holiday Inn where foreign journalists
where housed during the war.

This tunnel under the airport was used to carry everything into and out of Sarajevo 92 - 95 including power, gas and all supplies as well as evacuating the wounded. More than 2 million people passed through it during this time. The city was completely surrounded by Serbian forces apart from the airport which was held by the UN, after 600 people where shot in the first year trying to run across the runway at night, this tunnel was built under it instead. It was 800 m long and took 4 months to dig by hand. 25 m still exist, the rest has collapsed.

Sarajevo from the surrounding hills.
Many buildings are still in this condition.
If a face could tell a thousand words.

One of the many mosques in the city centre.
The burnt out library awaiting reconstruction.

Ornaments made from artillery shells.

A destroyed building awaiting demolition.

At least one wall has been renovated
A fountain in Travnik bearing Arabic inscriptions.


Perfect village to camp in
Perfect camp spot
The remains of what once was a village.

Left or right? Hmmm...
Welcome to Bosnia!
Camp spot near the border in Croatia
All the border regions suffered heavy losses and damage.
13 years on and mines are still a major danger.
Near the Bosnian border.

Croatian countryside
Spectator in a manual grass cutting competition.

Each time I produce the paper, there is a certain awkwardness as I can say no more than "Hello" in their language. This feeling lasts only as long as it take for them to read the carefully written words in a language foreign to me but so familiar to them. These words are something like:

"Excuse me, I'm from New Zealand
and I am cycling through your country,
could I please camp on your lawn?"

After a brief silence, there is always a waving of hands and a brief commotion as kids giggle and and point at the sight of some afro haired guy from New Zealand who has just appeared out of nowhere and now plans to sleep on their lawn, quite a story to tell the kids at school. The initial curiosity usually leads to extensive conversations where we each speak out own languages and somehow understand that it doesn't matter what language you speak.
With the adults it is somewhat different, once they realise that I am a actually serious, they usually offer tea or coffee and often food also. They also usually speak a second or third language, in this case Italian. I brush off my rusty spanish skills and finally spend two hours learning about life in this somewhat troubled but beautiful country.
This is my second night on the road and I am somewhere in the middle of Bosnia in areas that where (and still are) heavily affected by war. The people have, in some way, come up with ways to cope. Burnt out houses stand like headstones to the villages destroyed during those years. Some have rebuilt next door, others never returned. In desperation the dead where buried wherever there was space, be it a park, garden or just an empty lot. This creates a very surreal atmosphere as every gravestone is inscribed with either '93, '94 or '95. Another and another and another life snuffed out before their time. The mind boggles as the kilometers whirr past under my wheels.
As a 12 km uphill looms ahead, I won't deny that I sometimes wonder why I bother cycling in these places, but the answer is never far away. Arriving in Travnik after a rather tough 120 km over two mountain passes I stop to check the map before proceeding to a smaller village where I can find a lawn. I hear a voice over my shoulder "I'm glad your hear".
I wake up feeling rather sleepy on a short red couch in a large restaurant. The night watchman asks if I have slept well in German, I nod and begin to pack my things for the final push to Sarajevo. The generosity of his boss provided me with dinner and a place to sleep following my chance encounter with another of his employees. At 73 he is planning on cycling and was only too glad to pump into me in the street so I could help him with the required equipment.
When cycling, big cities are a nightmare! My final day started out with 22 km riding on a very narrow road with loads of trucks. I mostly had to cycle in the gutter which is not fun, then as I neared the city I twice ended up on the motorway, once having to climb over a barrier, over a fence and across a field to escape from trucks passing me at 100 km/h. Not good.
So after 5 days cycling and a bit over 600 km I arrived in Sarajevo, a city I only remember hearing about as a child during the war there. 13 year on and the scars are very evident. The city centre has been almost completely rebuilt but the suburbs bear the scars of 3 years of heavy attack. As in the villages, graveyards fill any available space. Hidden beneath this damaged exterior, the city is a cocktail of ethnicities, religions and people. The lilting whale of the call to prayer from each of the dozens of mosques brings feelings of the middle east. A synagogue and dozens of churches reveal to true multi cultural heritage of the place. The streets are filled with throngs of young people, some in head scarves some in modern fashion cloths and almost all eating delicious ice cream. A crane rises from a modern skyscraper revealing the new found prosperity of some in this otherwise poor country. Trams that certainly date back to the 50's rumble back and forth along the length of the city.
As the train pulls out from the station I can't help but hope that the future will be brighter for these people.