Touring Across Greece and Learning to Let Go

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Written by Maria Schumacher. Posted in Rides Sleep refused to […]

Written by Maria Schumacher. Posted in Rides

Sleep refused to come as I lay tucked into my sleeping bag below a flickering TV. Our overnight ferry was leaving the known world behind. So far, we’d ridden through countries I had been to before, visiting friends and family along the way. It felt safely familiar. Docking in Greece tomorrow, the real adventure would begin, and I was thrilled!

I must have dozed off, because the next thing I remember was the smell of coffee and cheap croissants. Aidan, my partner in crime, had procured breakfast knowing there was no chance of me going anywhere without coffee. We hastily slurped it down as the Tannoy announced what we assumed was our imminent arrival. It was all Greek to me, but the dot on the TV’s map confirmed we were close to shore.

We rolled off the boat into fresh morning air that wouldn’t stay cool for long. Soon the road began to climb into the mountains, twisting its way along the yellow rock face towards the pastel pink and purple dawn sky. In the sleepy valley below, little white houses poked their red roofs through a wafting blanket of mist. Cows were lazily chewing cud by the roadside and dogs lay on the tarmac still holding the warmth from yesterday’s sunshine.

We arrived in the lakeside town of Ioannina just as vendors rolled back the shutters and cafes began to place their chairs on the sidewalks. The smell of coffee and freshly baked sweets tempted us to a second breakfast as we stomped around the castle in our riding boots, finding overgrown piles of iron balls and rusty cannons aiming at pretty views.

All good fun, but eventually it got too hot, and the cool breeze of the open road was calling. I was just beginning to settle into the soothing rhythm of the highway when boiling coolant exploded all over my leg. I screeched to a halt. My leathers had prevented any burns, but the bike was a mess.

With no hint as to the cause, we called our trusted mechanic in London, who advised it could be a defective thermostat or water pump. To find out, we’d have to start the bike cold and feel for hot pipes, indicating how far coolant was flowing. It could also be a clogged-up radiator, so we should be sure to clean it thoroughly first.

We did not have the parts required for the first two, so we hoped it was a clog. A couple of games of cards later, the engine had cooled enough, so we topped up with spare coolant and started the bike, willing the radiator to be the culprit until it defiantly began to bubble over again. This was no roadside repair, so Aidan found an idyllic field with a trickling stream, towed me there, and cooked dinner.

In the morning he rode to town for more coolant while I took advantage of the downtime to attack the bike’s accumulated baked-on Italian mud with river water, a screwdriver, and a toothbrush. After supplies arrived, we fired up the bike and traced the heat along the pipes and found the water pump was failing. A sinking feeling crept in. We had no spare parts, no place to do the work, and no idea for a solution.

But we did have beers cooling in the glistening stream and beautiful sunshine to make an excellent laundry day. In the afternoon a wave of sheep descended upon camp and a curious shepherd came over to inspect our identical bikes. With no common language to answer his questions, we pointed at the F650 GS logo and shared a cigarette.

In the morning, we attached a luggage strap to Aidan’s panniers and wrapped the other end around the center of my handlebars. Its end was tucked under my clutch hand, ready to let go if things went wrong. Met with the full weight of my laden bike, the tightening rope yanked Aidan backward. This was doable in a straight line, but cornering pulled us both sideways. Aidan couldn’t see the rope, so any new tug was a surprise he had to be ready for. I had to concentrate enormously, gently braking when needed to keep the strap tight and avoid it going under the front wheel. Fear sent me down a spiral of hopelessness inside my helmet. Aidan wasn’t feeling much better, always expecting to be thrown to the ground.

Across Greece 2

A small cafe came to the rescue with a strong iced coffee and slow Wi-Fi that we utilized to make a plan. Friends kindly offered us the use of their Athens apartment, and our trusted U.K. parts supplier agreed to ship everything we needed. All that was left was to tow the BMW halfway across Greece to the capital!

With renewed enthusiasm and determination, we camped close enough to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Delphi, the center of the world to ancient Greeks, to be able to get there in time for sunrise. At first light, we towed the bikes up the steep, twisting road where the bends got tighter. The rope was beginning to pull us more sideways at each turn. Suddenly Aidan and I were straining towards the same abyss from opposite ends of a V-shaped bend. I panicked and forgot to let go! The bikes were going over. Then, the rope snapped. Aidan shot upright and swerved to safety. I skidded backward, stopping centimeters from the car behind.

Across Greece 3

That was too close! Wide-eyed and shaking, we made a new plan. From now on I would start the bike, ride the bend, then shut it off and tow it in the straightaways. That worked well and we rode on, me chanting a mantra in my head: “You can let go! You can just let go.”

The shutters of the ticket office went up as we pulled into the car park, and we had the spectacularly preserved ruins of Delphi all to ourselves. The gentle morning sun warmed our faces as we bumbled among the ancient columns and flower-studded steps, soaking up the views over the valley beyond.

When the first bus began unloading a noisy hoard of school children, we set off again. We got a lot better at towing, reading the road, and remembered to let go when necessary. The stop/start city traffic of Athens was another matter entirely. The soaring temperatures prevented running my bike for the many turns, so we found ourselves pulling my machine at precarious angles. Aidan tore a muscle trying to prevent the inevitable fall and we grew more and more tired, picking up the bikes in the relentless heat.

People were wonderful, giving us lots of room, and rushing to help. Another biker gave us his card should we need anything during our stay, and on one street several mechanics asked how they could assist. But we were too exhausted and overwhelmed to take note of the opportunity, focusing only on reaching our friend’s place. After much confusion over the address while attempting to translate the Greek alphabet into something we could read, we finally found ourselves in a comfortable home with a garden full of orange trees.

The parts took weeks to arrive from England, so we spent days exploring the Acropolis, perusing the flea markets, and discovering where the locals ate the best gyros. By the time we’d made all the orange marmalade we could eat, the parcel arrived, and we set to work.

We had never done such extensive motorcycle maintenance before, but with the help of a manual everything went well… until I snapped a crucial part. I’ll never forget that sinking feeling as I realized it would take another six weeks for the replacement to arrive from our trusted supplier in England!

Across Greece 4

Then it occurred to us. Greeks ride motorcycles, too. They must have parts. That entire street of mechanics on the way into the city should have been a hint! A quick search on Google later we found ourselves walking up to the counter of a huge BMW motorcycle shop.

The friendly assistant sent us to the expansive mezzanine where a tiny man in grey BMW overalls greeted us. With no idea what the part might be called in Greek, we handed him the broken pieces. He scurried off along the rows of neatly stacked shelves and returned just moments later with exactly the right part. Realizing my bike might soon have the same issue, I handed him the mangled water pump cogs as well. He made a beeline for a specific tiny white box on a high-up shelf several rows over and returned with two new ones. He seemed to know every part by sight and exactly which of the thousands of boxes on this mezzanine it was kept in.

Ever grateful to our generous friends for lending us their apartment for what turned out to be eight weeks, we had learned an important lesson: Traveling is not about clinging to what you know and dragging it around the world with you. Rather, it’s about letting go and discovering new things, embracing what you find. Shipping parts all the way from the familiar shop at home was expensive and took a long time, while as it turned out, spares were readily available locally. If only we had cared to look, we could have fixed the bikes in a couple of days at a hotel, rather than bothering our friends back home.

Two months older and a bit wiser, we headed northeast. By now, spring had turned to summer and we were grateful for the salty sea breeze on the twisty coastal mountain roads. After the hustle and bustle of Athens, we gladly settled back into nomadic life in the peaceful Greek countryside. We made stick bread over campfires amongst ancient olive groves with grazing sheep with a few shepherding dogs for company and set the world to rights sitting on white rocks at the edge of vineyards, sipping vino under orange sunset skies.

There was one more busy place we just had to see before leaving for Turkey: Meteora, another magical UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here sandstone monoliths reached for the sky in an otherwise flat landscape, the monoliths topped by little monasteries with red terracotta roofs that were almost impossible to reach. In days long past, food was hauled up via pulley systems and miscreants were suspended in cages over the edges for punishment. The monasteries operate to this day, but no one was hanging out in the cage, at least when we visited.

Across Greece 5

Riding past yet another flock of sheep that afternoon we noticed that Greece was becoming all too familiar. It was time to leave the comfort of Europe behind to explore the mysteries of Asia.

 


 

Maria Schumacher Mini BioInspired by a book signing at a motorcycle show in London, Maria Schumacher, and her partner Aidan decided to ride around the world, even though they had never sat on a motorcycle before. Since then, they’ve led a life interrupted by travel across Europe, Turkey, Georgia, India, and Australia. Both started their journey on a 2004 BMW F650GS. While Aidan still rides his, Maria switched to her 1991 Honda NX250. They’ve lived in Vancouver for the past few years and are heading south from Canada to Argentina at the end of summer.

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