A Dozen Solo-Traveler Safety Tips

A Dozen Solo-Traveler Safety Tips

A couple of weeks ago I had a long layover at the Toronto airport and used the chance to catch up with a friend who’s planning a trip to Spain. She might explore Barcelona for a couple of days at the beginning of her trip. Her first inclination was to book a guided tour so she wouldn’t need to travel alone. I shared that traveling with a guide is one of my least favorite ways to travel because I enjoy being able to spend as little or as long as I like at each site. I also enjoy changing my plans mid-day and deciding to walk down a beautiful street or pause in a square a bit longer. She was concerned about doing this because she’d be a woman traveling alone. I explained to her my strategies for traveling alone that allow me to be safe and relaxed while exploring a new city. We both realized that many people might be interested in these strategies I’ve accrued along the way. I’m sharing these with you now and I’m also curious to know your own tips and tricks for solo travel. Get out there and explore!

1. Secure your belongings.

The most likely thing that can go wrong when you’re traveling is to be the victim of a pickpocket or a run-by thief. This is why I have an intentional way to carry my important items (identification, money, cell phone and digital camera) on my person. The first thing I do is leave my passport in the hotel safe and carry a copy (if needed) and some form of government ID – a drivers license is usually fine. I also leave about half of my money and a credit card in the hotel safe with my passport. Then I take the other half of my money and divide it in two – half of it goes in a money belt and half goes in a simple wallet in my pursue or camera bag (if that’s all I’m carrying). If I feel extra concerned, I might also throw a bill in my shoe. The reason for the two or three spots is that I can give away my pursue if needed without injury and I won’t be in such a bind.

Here’s a full inventory of what I’d have in my money belt – a credit card, a third of my cash and some form of ID. There are a few designs of money belts – some are like a slim Fanny pack which works nicely under a dress, skirt or shirt (use bathroom breaks to pull out more cash if needed). I also have a nice one that attaches to my belt and works well with jeans as long as they aren’t too tight-fitting. The money pouch slides into my jeans behind my front pocket and is secured by loops on the belt.

Once you have your cash, ID and credit cards split up in a few places you’ve got back up plans in case of the unfortunate situation that someone steals your bag or purse. Your life is more important than your wallet – be ready to give it away!

2. Ask for a paper map

When you check in to the hotel – ask for a paper map of the city or the district you’ll be exploring. I also like to ask the desk clerk for any unsafe areas of the city I should avoid – then I just X those out on the map. I also use this chance to get local recommendations on places to run, eat and special sites to see and mark them on the map. I originally liked paper maps because I could discreetly check it while traveling and not have my face in a phone and look like a tourist, but nowadays everyone lives on a phone in every corner of the world so I don’t think it’s a giveaway. Maybe a paper map is more of a giveaway?! But, I also like them because I often trace my route as I go with a colored marker and then add it to my scrapbook. It’s good for memories and for future recommendations to friends.

3. Slim down

I like to carry as little as possible when I’m traveling around in a new city: paper-map, small notebook, pen (I have a nice tactical pen that doubles as a weapon in a pinch), chapstick, small bottle of water, small umbrella or poncho, possibly a digital camera. Slimming down makes it easier to keep track of my stuff and I have capacity to bring home a souvenir or two.

4. Make a plan and route it on your map.

Challenge yourself to memorize the first three turns you’ll take. Surprisingly, this is a bit hard to do nowadays in the era of google maps. I also like to give myself some flexibility and go where the spirit moves. Another benefit of a paper map is that if you wind up in a place with poor or no cell signal, you won’t be lost! One thing about paper maps is it’s harder to estimate traveling times, so if I’m under time pressure which you almost always are on a weekend jaunt, I like to use google maps to route to the farthest point I’d like to walk in the city and then note how long that will take. This helps me build realistic walking routes.

5. Try to dress like a local.

This can be challenging if it’s a city you’ve never explored. When I went to Barcelona it was a nice summer day, so I wore a summer dress from Desigual and bought a linen shirt to throw over my shoulders as the sun grew stronger throughout the day. I left behind my big digital camera. Wore some comfortable but a bit fashionable Nike Free tennis shoes (Nikes are everywhere folks!). I think I looked a bit like a local? It made it easier to blend in and then you’re less likely to appear to be a tourist (aka target for petty theft).

6. Learn some local phrases and load Google Translate onto your phone.

No matter where I travel, I try to brush up on some local phrases in the native language. The areas to focus on are the ones in all the travel guides: ordering food, getting directions, greetings, asking for help. Usually, it’s enough. If it’s not enough, google translate is your friend. Just type in your phrase in your native language and it will generate the translation in the local language! I’ve used it to carry on conversations in Italy, Turkey and Brazil!

7. Be quiet, listen and be a chameleon

If you don’t want to stand out, try to be quiet. Americans, on a whole, are VERY LOUD tourists. So, if you want to be an obvious American, please, by all means, sit down at a cafe, speak loudly, ask for water with ice and complain about the SLOW service before you get lost in your iPhone… BUT, if you want to look like a local, sit down at the cafe, order in a normal volume voice, preferably in the local language and observe the people and mimic their behavior. I find it can be fun to do. If someone strikes up a conversation with you, by all means talk! But you might find it’s also fun to be quiet and observe and soak up the space and the scents and sounds.

8. Secure your belongings.

While sitting at a cafe table, I like to loop my bag strap around my leg so it can’t just be snatched away. Also, don’t leave your wallet or phone sitting on the table. It’s the best way to get them snatched by someone walking by. I prefer to not wear a backpack because belongings by your side or in front of you are easier to track especially in a crowded subway or bus. So, I prefer to carry a cloth or leather bag with a cross body strap. It gives lots of options for moving the bag to a secure place where I can keep an eye on it.

9. Keep your head up.

It’s important to always be aware of your surroundings if you want to avoid being a victim. Pay attention to the people around you, not in a hyper-vigilant way to the point you can’t relax, but you should be able to notice if a particular person keeps showing up in the same spots as you. And pay attention to your intuition, if a situation doesn’t feel right, walk away from it. There are many other places to visit! Also, when I check my map (the biggest giveaway you aren’t a local), I like to place myself against a wall or in a quiet place. This way I can see all around me and be a bit less obvious. The goal here is to not become a target of a thief.

10. Identify escape routes

This one is a reassuring element for me and some might say it’s going to far, but I always like to identify my escape routes when I go in a building. You never know when something might go down and it’s nice to know how to get away quick if needed. In a restaurant, sit at a table near the edge and in a chair where you have a view of the entire restaurant and a clear path to the doors. This way you’ll know if something is about to go down and can respond quickly. In the beginning this might feel strange or cause you to be fearful, but when it becomes a part of your routine it’s just a natural part of how you travel.

11. Learn how to look at people

Growing up I was always encouraged to look people in the eye, and for human connections this is a great habit: eye contact, firm handshake, smile. But, in the instance where you might be approaching an attacker, in fact looking them in the eye can embolden them. Think of the animal kingdom – looking an aggressive dog in the eye can empower and trigger an attack. Apply the same principal here – train yourself to briefly scan the face and then focus on the breastbone just below the head. In the instance you need to defend yourself, you’ll be better able to track the direction your attacker is going and you won’t be psychologically emboldening them. It’s also important you don’t hold eye contact for too long because depending on the culture, this can indicate interest and for a woman traveling alone could lead to an annoying tag-along that you then later need to shake.

12. Learn some self-defense

It can be as simple as a weekend course, or something you do on a regular basis. In my case, I trained in Krav Maga for about a year and a half while I lived alone in Germany and this made me much more confident to travel on my own. But it also made me much more away of situations to avoid. I can’t say for sure that this training prevented things from happening to me, but fortunately I never was a victim or threat or any sort of physical encounter. Krav Maga training taught me simple strategies to get out of a dangerous situation and also how to carry myself in a way that made me an unattractive target. I kept my head up, walked with a purpose and made sure I was never in a position where someone could grab me from behind (the very worst way to be caught). You might not want to invest so much time in training, but as women I believe we can all benefit from some situational awareness and self-defense training. It’s a small investment in yourself that can make you more self-confident and relaxed when you travel.

Well, there you have it, a dozen of my personal solo traveler safety strategies. I’m curious to hear your ideas. Please post them in the comments.


2017 was a very big year

2017 was a very big year

As New Year’s Eve approaches I find myself reflecting on all that transpired in 2017. It was a very big year! I shared much of it with you, but I feel a need to once again reflect and sum it up. So, I did what every good American would do and pulled out a journal my sister gave me and wrote down my 2017 Adventure List. These are written in the order they appeared in my mind, which I do believe implies their significance in my memory.

“2017 Adventures”

1. Admired my first real Frida hung in the galleries of MALBA in Buenos Aires. What a fierce beauty she was! Extra special because I did not know it was on display in this museum and found it quite by accident. A most pleasant surprise.

2. Drank Belgian Biere in a cellar in Brügge with my expat sista Tilghman. Yes, it is some of the best beer in the world, although the Czech beer is slightly better. I can safely say this now that I have moved home from Germany! Ha ha.

3. Accidentally drove by Stonehenge on our way to London and stopped to snap a few photos from a nearby field road. Super-funny because we actually decided we wouldn’t have time to stop and crossed it off our list. Guess it was meant to be…

4. Visited the home church of my Thacher Ancestors – St. Barnabas in Queen Camel, Somerset County, England. A fulfilling and emotional journey retracing our roots to England. Which inspired the outline of a book I intend to write someday.

5. Enjoyed a few (ok maybe more than a few…) pints in the traditional British pub next to the family church with the Marston Magnus Drinking Club. More book material…

6. Watched the Tour de France and MET CAVENDISH!!!! And he signed my Tour baseball cap!!!

7. Learned to Stand Up Paddle (SUP) off the coast of Ilhabela in Brazil. The trick was first remembering how to dance.

8. Tip-toed through the tulips at Keukenhoff. I was too excited to only tiptoe and also occasionally jumped for joy. This place is spectacular!!!

9. Completed the “3 Countries in a Day Bike Tour” organized by fearless leader John – Germany, Netherlands and Belgium – 100 miles and unlimited laughs in a torrential rain storm with the Red Hat bike Gang. The commemorative jersey is in the mail, or so I’ve been told.

10. Survived the Dead Guys Bike Tour around Oxford, England guided by our dear friend Adam – most memorable – visiting the simple grave of J.R.R. Tolkien and the grave and home of Agatha Christie.

11. Attended the Garth Brooks World Tour in Nashville – Bonus: dancing in the Honky Tonks on Broadway with my love.

12. Lost my Tony cat. Found my Tony cat (whew, that was a close call).

13. Finally baked my first apple pie in a pan we received as a wedding gift 18 years ago. Thanks to the help of my clever nephew, it was delicious!

14. Enjoyed Tapas in the rain in La Rioja, Spain with my college racing team-mate Christina and her husband. We had not seen each other for about 12 years but it felt like it had only been yesterday. This is the good stuff!

15. Cheered on the fliers at the Planica Ski-Jumping event with a dear friend I’d met in California on a field tour years ago.

16. Hiked the Striding Edge on Helvellyn. Certainly my most memorable hiking adventure to date. Only the Grand Canyon comes close in terms of challenge and scenery.

17. Rode The Chunnel!

18. Drove on the wrong side of the road in England, safely, mind you, in a left-hand- drive German car, no less!

19. Morning jog through the Berlin Tiergarten for a sunrise view of the Brandenberg Tur.

20. Repatriated to America with only one broken glühwein mug in my shipment and was welcomed home by the most incredible surprise party with my family and friends! Reminded again that I am tremendously blessed!

Here’s to 2018! A time when I intend to spend as many precious moments as possible with the people I love near and far! Thanks for everyone who made 2017 amazing and will help make 2018 even better.

Lap Child

Lap Child

Yesterday I boarded my third and final connection to get me back home after a week of business travel in Germany. The time was about 9:30 pm and I’d been traveling for approximately 15 hours. As I boarded the Air Canada flight, I had one thing on my mind – plugging in my headphones and getting some rest. I found my seat – 5D – threw my carryon in the overhead bin, shoved my backpack under the seat and sat down. 

You can imagine what I was thinking when a few minutes into boarding a lady walked up carrying a small child in her arms and said she had the window seat next to me. I asked her if she’d prefer the aisle, something in me said this would be easier for everyone, and she accepted it happily. As the little fellow began to settle in I replaced the batteries in my noise canceling headphones and prepared to tune out with some music and my book.

But, first, I decided to say hello to my new seat-mates. Lately, I’ve been trying to reconnect with the people next to me on the plane. I think it stems from this desire to counter the toxic themes in our society by being part of the change. I want to make more connections and be part of a pleasant exchange with another person. It doesn’t mean I chat the entire flight, but it just seems like a decent thing to do to acknowledge the human sitting next to me, breathing the same air. 

We exchanged our hellos and then the mother had the delightful task of convincing her 21 month old son, who’d also, by the way, been traveling all day, to sit facing her for take-off. He was having none of it. The frustration and screaming began and at first I thought “this is going to be a long short flight”. Headphones secured I tried to block out the noise. Then I decided to take a different tact. Maybe instead of blocking out the “problem” I could be part of the solution…

I began to play with the little tyke. We turned the reading light on and off, then moved on to peek-a-boo. I realized I hadn’t played with a little kid this age in a while and racked my brain for little games or songs to sing. I found the teensy weeny spider hiding in the cobweb of my memories, and pulled it out. He was fascinated! 

After takeoff, I decided to work on some drawing I’d begun on the long flight over the ocean. Of course, this peaked his interest and I loaned him a pen to decorate the in-flight magazine. Along the way his mother and I chatted about life and travel. Occasionally we were silent, enjoying the peaceful moments.

When the drink service started things took a turn for the worse as my seat-mate decided to dump a glass of orange juice on all of us. Luckily, I had my leather jacket draped across my lap for warmth and was saved the shower. His poor mother was drenched. As she looked over in horror, I laughed and said, for perhaps the 20th time that flight, its fine, don’t worry! I was amazed to find that I actually wasn’t upset at all.

I found myself feeling like I could relate to the poor fellows frustration of being locked up once again, unable to move freely, except for brief strolls up and down the aisles. I have found myself angry and wanting to cry on a plane after a long day of travel. So, I wasn’t at all surprised that this 21 month old little cutie was freely expressing his emotions.

As we prepared for landing his mother had the fun task of again securing him. By this point the poor fellow was even more frustrated so in addition to peekaboo and the teensy weensy spider song, I added the try to grab my hand routine. It was a hit. As we slowly rolled up the runway toward our gate, he gave up and fell asleep, snuggled securely in his mothers arms. This presented a new challenge – how would she gather all her things? I and another fellow helped out and then she and I walked along side-by-side toward the baggage claim area. Each pushing one handle of the stroller which he wasn’t in the mood to sit in and was loaded up with a tiny backpack and diaper bag.

I marveled at how encountering a lap child sitting on the flight next to me had felt like the worst way to end my day, but in fact was a tremendous gift. As I waited for my husband on the curb, I felt lighter. The memories of his little smiley face and the gratitude of his mother lingering in my mind. So, next time you wind up next to a lap child, remember that instead of an apparent problem, it might just be an opportunity for joy. It’s all about how you choose to respond to the situation. 

No photos please

This evening I had the pleasure of sharing a lovely dinner with friends in Düsseldorf. One thing I noticed was different about this dinner. While phones were around, they didn’t consume the guests attention. As I observed this, I found myself itching to ask the guests to gather together for the usual cell-phone groupie to remember the night.

I paused to consider why I wanted a photo. Would I post it on Facebook? Would I look at it in the airport lounge on my way home – a few pixels to remember the night? Would I simply add it to the series of other photos of my increasingly cluttered digitally-curated life?

At the moment when I wanted to request a photo, my friends were comfortable – hair undone, make-up non-existent or minimal, clothing casual and comfortable. They were beautiful and natural, but maybe pausing to take a photo would make them assess the way they looked. After the snap, they might pull the phone out of my hand and critique a wrinkle they acquired from smiling in the sunshine while playing with their children. They might think “geez I should have done my hair instead of squeezing in a yoga class before dinner”. We’d have to snap another and another until everyone looked good, or someone half-heartedly said, “we’re done now, it’s fine”.

Requesting a photo would have taken us out of the moment. Our conversation string broken. Who knows what brilliant piece of German/English fusion would have been lost in that moment? Would we have lost the discussion of a book author, or an artist, or why is everyone so consumed with their phone? Time that is spent for one purpose can never be used for another.

No, this moment was too precious to capture in a photo. This moment I would capture in my memory by studying the faces at the table – glowing in the soft light of the low-hanging table lamp. The sparkling white gemstones that dangled from the ears of my friend, her shoulders cloaked in a dark green scarf to deflect the draft. The way my friend across the table curled her legs up under her chair and earnestly followed the conversation with serious concentration in her eyes. The open, content smile of my host – perched on her child’s chair to my right, with one hand gingerly supporting her suddenly not-so-comfortable-back. 

The warm, earthy flavor of the ratatouille cooked with loving care by my hosts. The bright green of the fresh-cut cilantro that I sprinkled atop it with my fingers. The rich, slightly dry red wine that rolled across my tongue. Contrasted with bubbles of sparkling water poured from a ribbed glass pitcher that spit and hissed as it hit my glass. 

Soft candlelight glowed on one edge of the room and the children came and went until bedtime. Then the oldest snuck into the entryway again – a ghost chased back to his room by his parents.

No, taking a photo was not the way to remember this night. This night was too precious to be rendered as purely a digital snapshot. This moment needed to be lived, completely. A memory reinforced by scents, tastes, sights, sounds and wrapped up in the warm embrace between two friends. 

Maybe tonight was a turning point for me. Next time you see me not taking a photo – don’t think it’s because I don’t care… There just might be a memory in the making.

United by Joy 

Today I found myself re-engaging with an old familiar routine – early-morning airline travel. I’m off to Germany again – but this time not to my apartment (which is no longer mine) but to a hotel for a week of business meetings. I managed a remarkable 21 day stint at home! Nearly a record for me. And when it came to packing-up, boy did I ever procrastinate!!!

Which is how I found myself waking up at 5 am, barely managing a quick coffee and a shower, before I madly packing my suitcase and backpack. I thought I’d done pretty well until we pulled up to the first turn and I realized I had forgotten my jeans – back to the house we went.

No harm no foul.

To make this journey fun, my husband and I pretended it was my first trip to Germany. Wow – it was going to be so amazing to visit a new place and finally practice all that German I’d been learning. Adding a humorous spin to the day certainly lifted my mood.

A quick farewell at the curb and I checked in my suitcase (I’m returning with gifts for the other expats and will also load up some clothes I left with a neighbor), passed through security and lined up in the old familiar cue of weary travelers at the Starbucks. Americano and banana in hand, I rode the people mover down to the gate. Last weekend, on my 39th bday, I was overly ambitious and rode two mountain bike trails with my husband. My back sure is making me pay. Let’s just say I’m feeling my age!

So, here I was as I boarded the United flight to Newark, New Jersey – sleepy, a bit melancholy about leaving home, with a sore back. I was so happy to be greeted by a smile and some humor from the flight atttendant – Berg. I quickly surmised that this man loves his job. Either that or he just decided to be positive today.

Every gesture was accompanied with a smile, humor and kindness in his eye. I found myself wondering, does he truly love his job? Or does he just chose to be happy? Did, in fact, something very terrible recently happen in his life and he’s chosen it won’t get him down? Maybe he in fact woke up in a bad mood but decided he wouldn’t share it with others? 

I don’t know what question is true, but I decided to be one of the few people who gave him the curtosy of watching the security briefing and silently chuckled at the extra silly mimes he interjected to the standard routine. After we were airborne, coffee was served up hot with an offering of Bailey’s to “spice it up”. I politely declined and resumed drawing in my notebook. Happy to be in the presence of a joyful person.

The flight was short – a mere hour and fifteen minutes – and as we began to descend I noticed Berg was meticulously folding a piece of paper. My first guess was he was assembling a paper airplane to throw at someone before we landed, a final, desperate gesture to improve the mood of grumpy, early Saturday-morning travelers. 

As the folding progressed, he tore off the bottom third of the page and was left with a neat square. He stayed busy with his hands and it quickly became obvious that he was practicing origami – a crease, a fold, followed by multiple firm swipes down the edge. Crease, fold, turn, the pattern continued. 

We landed and I became distracted by the act of gathering my things. I lost track of the origami and frankly forgot about it for a moment, until I deplaned. As I passed by Berg, I offered a smile of farewell. He smiled in return and firmly pressed a paper crane in to my hand.

As I bounced up the gangway to the terminal, with a smile plastered on my face, I was amazed at the power of a piece of paper in the hands of a creative, positive person. Remember that how you behave can either make someone’s day better or worse. Which do you choose?

3 countries in a day bike tour

One Saturday morning I woke up to find a blue sky over Düsseldorf. It made me so stunningly happy that I pulled out google maps and thought, geez, maybe I’ll bike to the Netherlands. It can’t be that far, it’s only an hour by car…? I mapped a route and found it was 50 miles one way to Roermond. I figured, “I can do this”, but then I accounted for roundtrip, calculated it would be 100 miles and at least 8 hours. Looked at the time – it was about 9 am. So, that day wasn’t the day. Before I abandoned, I tried to figure out how to take a train back – I could ride one way and train it back, was my logic – but I couldn’t figure that out easily. Maybe it was good I didn’t bike that day since I apparently wasn’t firing on all cylinders… I added the bike ride to the Netherlands to my “things to do before I move back to the US” list and went for a bike ride to Kaiserwerth.

Since a ride to the Netherlands was on my list and I needed some logistical and route-planning support, I mentioned it to my local biking friends. One of my friends gave me a bike route map for the state of Nord Rhein Westfalen. A Dutch friend confirmed that, yes, in fact, I could catch a train back. But when I mentioned it to my friend John, he shot back with an email, with co-conspirators copied in (basically I was trapped…) that said – why just go to the Netherlands, when you can also go to Belgium, and why only bike one way when we could bike the whole thing??? So, it began that 5 of us signed on for a “3 Countries in a Day” bike tour. Peer pressure, I mistakenly thought it would fade as I got older!

John asked his son to make us a route – he’s got a snazzy Garmin watch that he uses when he does rides like this, apparently he eats them for lunch – ah to be young again… So, he started with a route he’d already ridden, then used the power of user-generated data to add some tweaks that included routes generated via a heat map for where a lot of people bike. John emailed us the route and we began to discuss it.
The route was 160 kilometers long with a mostly flat elevation. The biggest challenge we considered to face was the wind in our face on the way out. Oh, and the fact that we needed to cover such a great distance between 7 am (sunrise) and 8:30 pm (sunset).

John sent us our marching orders: 

Peter – loaded the route on to his Teasi and would be our trail-blazer.

Jaap – responsible for getting us shirts to mark the absolutely mad event.

Peter Josef – now I don’t remember his task, but I think it was to finish!

Greg – a friend who offered to provide sag support during the day and meet us at lunch time and with a bottle of Sekt at the Belgian border.

Natalie – good weather.

John – captain and coordinator.

Another friend of mine also wanted to be in on the action, but she didn’t want to bike the route, so she offered to meet us for afternoon tea.

I spent the three weeks before our ride in America where I mountain biked with my husband and took long walks in the woods near our property. But, the upcoming long miles whispered to me most days and my fear of the big day slowly grew. Besides I couldn’t resist mentioning it to some friends, perhaps mostly so I wouldn’t back out.

5 days before the ride I checked the forecast: rain. Wait a minute, how was I going to deliver my part of the deal?! Due to the high amount of peer pressure and the fact that 3 of the fellow riders were either from Great Britain or had lived there for years, I knew that saying I didn’t want to bike in the rain wouldn’t fly. So, we forged ahead with our plans.

Then the unexpected happened: Peter Josef was commuting to work by bike on a rainy morning and slid out and crashed, cutting his leg and generally making him unable to join our tour, by bike. John declared that was the most creative and perhaps overly dramatic way to avoid the ride. But then Peter Josef surprised me by offering to drive our sag vehicle for the day. He would be along with a dry change of clothes, snacks, a bike rack in case we had an infixable mechanical issue and, most importantly(!) a bottle of Sekt for us to pop open after we crossed the border in to Belgium.

The day before our ride we met in the cafeteria at work for a planning meeting while we carb-loaded. We debated which direction to take the route. Considered the pros and cons of elevation grades from both directions and when we would be going in to a headwind. We generally avoided the topic of weather and ran back through our check-list of supplies. The decision was dictated by John that we would meet at the outdoor pools north of Düsseldorf at the ungodly hour of 6:50 am. He was the captain so we had no option but to follow orders! Then we lugged along our bags out to the sag vehicle and back to our offices to finish out the afternoon, I must admit, mightily distracted by what lay ahead.

The rain began that afternoon. On the drive home it was still going. I decided to run to the store to buy some spare inner tubes and texted the guys to see what they needed. All requested tubes and Jaap made a very wise request…could I grab him a lightweight rain coat? I jumped on my town bike and pedaled through the, now pouring, rain to Lucky Bikes. Located the tubes and agonized over the right jacket. After riding in the pouring rainy to Lucky Bike, the rain coat was a no brainer! It turned out to be the best purchase I made all year! My purchases complete, I biked back home through the pouring rain and really began to question the wisdom of being part of a Bike Gang dominated by British folks. I mean, most other people would just bail, postpone, seriously, demand a rain check. But, not these guys! My awesome Bike Gang had given no indication that there was any option but to proceed with our plan come hell or high water (literally)! I was afraid and I was also very proud! Proud to call these fellows my friends.

I laid out all my supplies, pumped up my tires, wiped and greased my chain, and checked the brakes. I unsuccessfully tried to find my lights, and improvised by taping an LED flashlight to my handlebar stem. Then, I tried to sleep. You can guess how that went. I think I woke up every hour that night.

The alarm woke me at 5:30 am. It was still raining. It hadn’t stopped all night, which meant the roads would be slick. This is when I realized the 4 of us had never biked together as a group. This can be dicey under normal circumstances, but on flooded roads with more rain coming it could be a problem. I was happy we had a sag vehicle. I set my worries aside and turned on the kettle to brew a cup of coffee. After a quick shower I threw on my UC Davis racing uniform (I needed all the luck I could get!). Then I sat down for a quick breakfast of yogurt and granola, twice my normal dose. I checked my phone and saw a message from my husband that read: “we all know you’re tough, don’t be afraid to take a 🚗 or 🚂 “. I felt relieved to have that pressure lifted but I knew there was no escape.

One more quick bathroom stop (I wouldn’t see a proper toilet again for a while) then I threw on my backpack loaded with the spare tubes, rain coat for Jaap, and a surprise gift for the Gang. Pulled the Velcro on my biking shoes snug and clipped in for the ride to the Apollo Theatre to meet John.

The roads were slick. I braked carefully in the corners, taking special care to cross the street car tracks at a perpendicular angle. This is when I was reminded again that we’d never biked together and would need to be extra careful to avoid colliding into each other on the rainy roads. Groups dynamics do need to be learned. 

As I pulled under the Rheinbrücke and stopped in front of the Apollo theatre to wait for John’s arrival, I took in my surroundings. I like to know what and who are around me, especially at an odd hour. There was a man speaking passionately into his smartphone which was mounted to a selfie stick. He stood next to a forklift prattling away. Hmmmm, curious, I kept my distance. Another fellow sat in a black hatchback car. He appeared to be waiting. Seeing that all was clear I relaxed and waited for John to arrive. A couple of early mornings walkers strolled by. The man in the car stepped out and walked up to the Apollo theatre. Donning a security guard uniform, I understood what he’d been waiting for – the start of his shift. I had no way to tell time since my phone was tucked inside a plastic ziploc bag in my jersey pocket under my rain coat. I waited a few more minutes and saw a bright headlight approaching on the bike path. Sure enough it was John – wearing a red jacket – nearly the same shade as the jacket I was wearing and which Jaap would be wearing as well. How ironic! 

We commiserated a bit about our bad luck with weather, then took off, up the on-ramp and across the bridge to meet the rest of the Bike Gang at the outdoor pools in north Düsseldorf. We chatted as we pedaled along in the semi-darkness. A rabbit on a suicide run dashed across our path. Fortunately, we passed him without incident.

As we pulled up to the starting point parking lot, Jaap was standing near his car preparing his bike. Peter Josef pulled up soon after. As it was still raining, I pulled out my gift for the gang which I’d purchased at Lucky Bike on a whim the evening before. Red Rain Caps for our helmets. I was suspicious about their ability to keep our heads dry for the day, but I figured it was worth a try, besides anyone who was willing to pedal with me for 170 kilometers in the rain deserved a consolation prize! The guys delightedly secured the rain caps to their helmets. Peter pulled up on his touring bike with the route programmed in to his Teasi. I declared I had a gift for him and he said (seriously, I can’t make this stuff up!) – “is it a rain cap?”. And it was! The gift was a big hit and it actually made us look like a bicycle club, so double the fun!

Not in a mood to stand around in the rain, we took off. John noticed his brakes were rubbing and sure enough he had a hop in his wheel. Right away he blamed his sons for getting his wheel out of true. He proceeded to open his calipers a bit and we were off. Later we speculated he may have acquired the wheel hop on the cobble stones leading in to the parking lot. No matter, after a few miles we all forgot about it.

As we departed, Peter noted it was astronomical sunrise. A term I’d never heard before – this is a smart bunch! We headed out of the parking lot, turned right and hopped up the bike path and were on our way. We quickly learned how to ride in a group – deciding on hand signals and call outs. We noted some differences between countries. In England the call out for a car coming is “oil” while in America it is “car up” or “car back”. 

15 kilometers into our route we turned off the road and onto a dedicated bike path that took us past yellowing corn and freshly harvest carrot fields. After a kilometer, Peter had our first flat. I do believe that all of us thought this might be a sign of what was to come. We had calculated that we needed to travel at an average pace of 20 km/hr in order to finish our ride in about 10 hours. Accounting for about 2 hours of breaks and only about 13 hours of day-light the schedule was tight. Our goal was to push steady for the first 40 km, then check our pacing and adjust accordingly. The flat slowed us down a bit. As Peter was busy changing his tube, John and Jaap stamped their feet trying to stay warm in the rain and wind. 

The tire repaired, we resumed our journey. Jaap and John raced ahead a bit to warm up and Peter and I chugged along behind. A few moments later we caught the racers and shouted in delight as the rain petered out. About 2 hours in to our ride, it seemed like it was time for a bio-break. We pulled in to the first cornfield on the left. This is when I questioned the wisdom of wearing bib shorts. Let’s just say that every stop wasn’t near as speedy as it could have been. But, boy those shorts were comfy!!!

We wolfed down a quick snack and then trucked along to the Netherlands. As we climbed a hill through Schwalmtal, I looked up at the church spire and noted it as now 10:15 am. About 40 minutes later, we passed through a bank of trees and then began rolling down a section of paving on a country road that looked oddly like a bike path. 

Jaap confirmed that we had indeed passed into his homeland. We were in the countryside near the town of Herkenbosch and it was time to take an official group photo. We pulled off the street and Jaap secured his iPhone on a fence post and used a fancy photo delay feature to snap our group photo. 

A few minutes after this I was roaring with laughter after I saw a caution sign that was labeled “wildrooster”. Seriously, it said “wildrooster”. I asked Jaap, the native, the meaning of this sign. It was a marking for a cattleguard. I was thrilled beyond delight at this funny moment lost in translation and couldn’t resist snapping a photo with the sign. I needed photographic evidence!

We entered into a beautiful park and didn’t pass any other bikers for miles and miles. I noticed some beautiful irridescent green beetles marching across the road. Throughout the day, I also saw more slugs than I could count… As we broke out of the forest I paused to snap a selfie near a beautiful restored windmill. 

This is when John began to comment on the frequency of photos and how it was going to ruin our average. I took note. It felt like time for a full coffee and pie refreshing stop so, we made a plan to meet Peter Josef in the town of Sint Odilienberg. We raced along past pastures and fields as we closed in on the town, the rain began to gently fall again and a warm, welcoming cafe was certainly in order. Peter Josef waited for us near the church, which was easy to locate as the spire loomed over the city. 

We parked our bikes outside Cafe Smeets and stripped off our rain coats to give them a chance to dry. A proper toilet felt like a luxury. The coffee was hot and the pies were sweet. We chased it all down with a shot of Genever.

Our next stop was Belgium! We set our sights on Kessenick and estimated the time for Peter Josef to meet us for our toast of Sekt. Rain misted on us as we continued pedaling through the countryside, pleasantly warm from the coffee and Genever in our bellies. After about 30 minutes, we saw a herd of goats in a side yard and then the border sign was in sight. 

We hopped off our bikes, leaned them up against fence posts and trees and waited for Peter Josef to meet us for the toast. Mercifully the rain had stopped and we enjoyed the sounds of the goats bleating and waved at the fellow passing bicyclists. At this moment it was actually sunny – I think we saw the sun three times that day – so everyone was in a great mood. Also, we were about halfway done.

Peter Josef pulled up and hopped out to snap some photos as Jaap popped the top on the Sekt. We didn’t have any glasses, so we passed it around for swigs. There was a bench just to the right of our gathering spot and it felt like this event needed a toast. I stepped up on the bench, carefully – I was wearing cleats – and raised a toast to each of my fellow cyclists. Finally, I toasted Peter Josef for bring us the Sekt, which as you can imagine could sound suspiciously like another word. This got the guys to talking on another subject, but fortunately not for too long, as we still had half our ride ahead and next stop was Roermond for lunch and extended sit-down break. Such a luxury!!!

There is a video of the speech but I’m too cheap to upgrade my WordPress account so you won’t be able to see it here. Send donations if you want video content in the future. I can direct you to a PayPal account. 😂

During our brief stop in Belgium I had (ahem) fertilized some corn plants. This required stepping into the rich dirt between the rows, which packed itself into my cleats. As we took off I discovered it was impossible to get clipped in to my speed play pedals. I stopped to clean them in a few puddles and gave a few good stamps and then I was truly ready to go.

We were now about 60 or 70 kilometers in and I was relieved to find that my body felt fit and strong. My head was still dry and my feet were good too as we’d pedaled through some dry stretches. My legs and saddle felt good. The only thing that began to ache was the fronts of my shoulders and my upper biceps. The ache started then and stayed with me the entire day – prompting me to occasionally swing my arms backward in a large circle to stretch out the muscles.

About 20 minutes later we began to enter a more built-up area and it was clear to all we were approaching Roermond – cold beer and warm food and a seat off the bike! And another real toilet! We rolled into the city center which was quite packed with people as it was now beautifully sunny overhead. A quick text message helped us locate Peter Josef who also had two guests with him – his girlfriend Sabrina and our co-worker Greg. We picked a spot in the sun, leaned our bikes up against the wall and sat down. Greg and Sabrina were amazed at what we’d managed so far and what we still had ahead. I would say for us, we were so in the moment that we couldn’t really think of it. We hadn’t gotten to the point where we were just pedaling along kilometer by kilometer, dreading the next one, that would come later (no, seriously, it actually never felt like that for me). 

Small pints were delivered and Jaap ordered an assortment of sandwiches for us to share. Real food! We toasted to what we’d accomplished so far and soaked in the sun.

Time was running and after eating quickly we jumped back on our bikes. It was now 3:30 and we had about 4 hours of daylight and about 65 kilometers still to go. Our schedule would allow for one more break as long as we stayed on pace, another friend was planning to meet us for a mid afternoon tea break, which sounded lovely!

As we rolled out of Roermond, the sky darkened and rain began to fall again, slowly. I annoyed the guys by stopping to throw on my rain pants, which turned out to be an excellent decision. A few moments later, the sky literally opened up on us and buckets of rain began to fall. I did the only thing I could do, which was to laugh and continue carefully pedaling along, through puddles that were quickly becoming small ponds. We kept a bit more distance between each of us to account for slower braking and avoid the rooster tail in the face effect, although the water was coming from every direction and in such volume as I’d only ever biked in once in Louisiana. Which, incidentally, was a night when I met a fascinating woman who was also biking in a torrential downpour.

I thought to myself, geez Europe, I get it that you’re sad I’m leaving, but you don’t have to cry so much, I’ll be back again just 12 days after I leave!

The rain continued for about an hour and our speed dropped considerably. We were barely averaging 15 km/hr and it became clear we couldn’t afford the luxury of an afternoon break. As we pedaled along a nice stretch of bike path I paused under a tree (which didn’t help much to break the rain, as it was still coming down strong) to call my friend and explain we couldn’t meet for afternoon tea. I was sad, but it’s what we had to do, besides, although we were on route, we didn’t actually know where we were which we needed to know in order to meet her. Then this made my friend worried as she thought we were lost. I reassured her we were on course. 

We shoved off again and this is when we began the treacherous, bumpy section of the route. The first bump took me by surprise and sent a shock through my hands, which made me yelp out loud. After that I kept my grip a bit loser. A few kilometers of bumps and then I was relieved to be back on smooth roads again.

Now we were on the home stretch. John noted that we appeared to be tracking with the progression of the rain storm. How lovely! Fortunately, it eventually stopped and we paused for two more breaks – once to relieve ourselves and a second time for a snack as we consulted the map to ensure we were still on course. By 6:30, weariness had begun to settle in and we began to double-check the turns to ensure we were on course. 

Around 7:30 we began to enter familiar territory, and picked up our pace a bit as the finish line, and the promise of a warm shower (!), approached. At this point, I’d describe our mood as tired but pretty ecstatic! I learned that this was a greater distance than either Jaap or Peter had ever pedaled! Quite remarkable to just jump out and do it one day and to do it so well! John and I had both gone the distance before. Myself, back in Davis as a participant in the Foxy fall century, maybe in 2001, so it had been some time.

As we pedaled along Jaap noted that a bird had sh*t on my helmet cover. We both decided this was good luck!

Sunset began to light up the sky with brilliant colors and we stopped to snap one more photo. 

Then we made a steady push to home. As we pedaled up on to the banks of the Rhein to say farewell to Peter, we were filled with pride and joy. A quick round of hugs and thanks for the fantastic route guiding and Peter headed north while we raced south. 

And race we did, how we still had anything left in our legs is a mystery to me. Eventually, I began to fall off and yelled “gap” to which the fellows promptly responded and gave me a chance to catch them. 

The final stretch was a treacherous cobblestone path which Jaap raced over while John and I opted for a smooth surface just to the right. As we pulled into the parking lot, Peter Josef was there smiling and snapping photos of the red hat gang completing the journey. We gave a leap of joy and then got the heck off of our bikes to enjoy a ride in a cage (the biker term for car) back to town for a warm shower and dinner.

What a send off! A day I’ll never forget. The next morning I woke up to find a blue bird sky and it didn’t rain a lick. But I’ve got to say I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I mean, I’ve had loads of bluebird day bike rides and most are forgotten, but riding through a torrential rain storm, just because we could, well that I’ll never forget!

Musings from John (aka The Captain):

“6 am found me stood on the balcony, coffee in hand looking at the dark relentless rain. A twinge of guilt cut across my soul for the phrase “It’s only rain “ and I toast to whatever cycling gods are awake at this hour to keep us safe and throw the dregs of coffee over the balcony.

Such an arduous adventure reveals the true character of those involved and what a positive group of people , never a cross word, never really a grumble (except me when I fell off my bike into a puddle , predictably) and Peter Josef who couldn’t cycle supported us heroically. I recall stopping at some traffic lights in the pouring rain early in the day. The van driver next to us lowered the window ,” where are you going in this weather ?” he asked ? “ Belgium” came the reply to his astonishment , then, “and back” shouted Jaap which made him laugh out loud. Belgium as has been said by many was anticlimactic except for the quote of the day from our esteemed pathfinder . “ you come all this way and the route ends up a goat “ no idea what he was talking about. Natalie’s impromptu speech at this point has been captured for all eternity in a short video, needless to say it is nonsense but heartfelt nonsense.

Roemond with beer, food and friends was great but I worried that it would be difficult to get going again, it was in the rain that was like cycling along a stream while someone trained a hosepipe full on in your face. Then the weather improved, distance left became conceivable, and the evening light was saying “ well done , you can have it easy from this point” and it was . We had used the light of the whole day plus a bit more , we had challenged the elements and survived, we had talked philosophy and punctures and more importantly we had had a good laugh. 

I enjoyed my beers that night.”

And Peter (aka the pathfinder):

“I too was apprehensive about riding over 100 miles for the first time in my life; in the rain too. As I left home I wished for two things: a helmet cover and shoe covers. By some magical serendipity Natalie fulfilled the first wish, and the water drained out of the holes in my shoes just fine. I’m a Brit. We do rain.

Sorry about the puncture: rear wheel of course. I’d fitted brand new outer tyres because I know that punctures are more likely on old tyres in the rain. It turned out to be a faulty inner tube. Thanks to the team for the patience and Jaap for figuring out how to get the rotor between the brake pads.

As we left the Belgian border the effect of the Sekt started to wear off and the ride home seemed impossible. The tailwind and lunch in Roermond motivated me to hang on in there with the gang. In the back of my mind was the thought that I could catch a train home if the legs seized up. But they didn’t. Also, I was the only one who could navigate. We rode on steadily, stopping more often to rest and snack. As the rain cleared we picked up speed and soon the Düsseldorf Rheinturm was in sight. Home! We parted on the Rhein dyke near Meerbusch and I cycled northwards along the river in the dusk. My incredulous and slightly anxious wife was there to welcome me home. The soak in a hot bath was most welcome. I was even able to move and sit down the following day. We made it together. 

How far away is France?

Here’s the day by the numbers: 

  • 170 kilometers
  • 3 countries 
  • 12.5 hours 
  • 1 flat (puncture depending on your country of origin)
  • One funny joke about a goat
  • Nearly 1 bottle of Sekt, 4 shots of Genever and 3 beers
  • About 20 minutes of sunshine
  • Approximately a solid foot of rain (perhaps a slight exaggeration, but maybe not)
  • 4 proud bicyclists and the best sag crew a gal could wish for!

Friday Float on Vater Rhein (aka one of my zaniest adventures yet!)

Friday Float on Vater Rhein (aka one of my zaniest adventures yet!)

A few months ago I went to my colleagues office for the final weigh-in of the Desperate Dieters Challenge. I joined the challenge on a whim when I was working to lose weight and thought it would be nice to have a group to keep me accountable. It worked! As the challenge officially came to an end we needed a new adventure. After the weigh-in, my buddy Peter Josef popped in to the office with a new captain’s hat perched on his head and this is when our crazy plan was hatched. We would commute home from the office in Monheim to Düsseldorf via 3-man canoe.
We picked a Friday afternoon and on the appointed day I drove to the office toting a bag loaded with flip flops, a swimsuit, running shorts, a t-shirt, ball cap, shades fitted with a home-made lanyard, sunblock (I was optimistic that we MIGHT experience some sun) and, most important of all, 6 iced-down Duff beers and 3 bifi rolls for sustenance.

After the work day was over, we gathered in the lobby and walked out to Peter Josef’s car. There it was – a borrowed 3-man canoe strapped to the top of his station wagon. This is the moment when it hit me – I was about to do a rather crazy thing – canoeing down the Rhein river with two colleagues who I’d never boated with before and on top of that none of us had ever paddled the Vater Rhein! 

I was feeling relatively ok about this until John started to worry… aloud… if only he would have worried to himself, then I wouldn’t have also become a bit worried. As we drove toward our launch point I learned that we needed to take the ferry to Zons. Now is when it should be noted that Düsseldorf is on the opposite side of the river from Zons, which led me to deduce we would have to CROSS the river. I had not considered this as a possibility and this is when I began to think we could be embarking on a dangerous undertaking.

Waiting for the ferry gave us a chance to note the strong current in the water. Fortunately, we would be going downstream, but this is when John pointed out what would be our biggest challenge on the ride. He pointed out the erosion control (piles of rocks leading from the bank and out into the river at perpendicular angles to the shore. He asked if we knew what these were called and this is when the trip got interesting. These structures, according to my British friend, are called Groins! As you can imagine, for the rest of the trip we frequently had to make attempts to avoid the groins as we pursued a narrow path between the frequent, huge, barges and the currents created by the groins. We delighted in childishly referring to the gnarly groins, and avoiding the groin, and such it went for the duration.
Before we took off it was decided that John was captain and Peter was in the rear steering and I was in the middle to add some fuel. And to hand beers when it was time for this.

In the beginning there was lots of yelling from John to Peter Josef – go to the right, go to the left, not so far left, what are you doing man? I said left! It was rather humorous.
After about an hour we found our rhythm. 30 minutes later it was time to pop a top and we found a sleepy bay where we rested, enjoyed a cold Duff beer and took in the views.

As we resumed paddling, occasionally John would break in to song providing a soundtrack of Irish and Scottish seaman songs. We shared stories of our many and varied crazy travel adventures and occasionally we quietly took in the views of the beautiful Rhein. Although there wasn’t much quiet, this is a pretty talkative crowd! In addition to the jokes we also saw some very (ahem) interesting scenery…Once we averted our eyes when we saw a guy au natural sunning on the river banks. 

The day was mostly cloudy. About 30 minutes from the Mediahafen, it began to rain a bit. It could not dampen our spirits. Fortunately, it was a bit warm so we didn’t get chilled. About 3 hours after we entered the water in Zons, we passed the Paradiestrand in Düsseldorf and made a hard right into the Hafen. We were quite proud of traveling without incident when a huge barge began to bear down upon us laying on the horn. 

We dashed out of their way and made our way toward a dock, pulled the boat out of the water and lugged it up a steep ramp to the road and then on to John’s garage for the night.

All of us were thrilled to have completed the Rhein river commute challenge. It’s certainly an evening I will never forget. When I shared the story with my husband, he commented that since I’d traveled to work via car and bike and now boat, I needed to go by train. I laughed and then, sure enough, I went by train last Tuesday. I’m grateful that he constantly challenges me to find new ways to experience life and doesn’t stop me from taking crazy adventures like paddling down the Rhein in a 3-man canoe!

Our next adventure will be a 3-country, 100 mile bike tour in a day! What a way to end my 2 year adventure in Deutschland! More to come on that soon.