Tuesday, June 15, 2010

donate to humanitarian relief in southern Kyrgyzstan

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regional office in Tashkent is mobilizing aid to southern Kyrgyzstan. You can donate here.

Voice from inside a blockaded Osh neighborhood

It took many tries to get ahold of my Uzbek friends in Osh this evening, making me worry about their well-being. Finally, I was able to reach them at their home number.

Nargiza (name changed) answered and her voice sounded like a child’s. Unlike last time, when she expressed her excitement to hear from me, she remained somber. “We’re not doing very well,” she said in a low, quiet voice. “We’re all still healthy, but you know, it’s a war zone.”

A few days earlier, she expressed regret that her sons were out guarding the neighborhood and couldn’t talk to me. Tonight, there was no discussion of friendly chats. Her husband and sons were busy sleeping in shifts of 1-2 hours, taking short breaks from a constant guarding of the neighborhood.

“I’m very scared for my children,” she said. “None of us are getting much sleep.”

She said the men in her neighborhood have blockaded it, so the people and the houses have remained safe. But they feel they are in a state of war, and the stress and the lack of the sleep are wearing on them.

“We can still hear shooting,” she said. “We keep hoping that someone from outside will come to provide security, but it hasn’t happened yet. We don’t believe anyone in Kyrgyzstan anymore, so we want someone from the outside to help.”

She says it has been a bit quieter since Monday, though they can still hear shooting. The people within her neighborhood were told not to venture out, so she hadn’t seen the city outside her street for several days. “People have run in different directions,” she said. “The Kyrgyz to their villages and the places they came from, the Uzbeks into Uzbekistan. There might not be many left in Osh.”

They are left with a sense of incomprehension. “We don’t know who killed people or who was killed. The Kyrgyz say it was people specially prepared to do this. I know the Kyrgyz are good and peaceful people. We’ve lived among them and shared space at the market together. Still, there is a war with Kyrgyz and Uzbeks killing each other. They burned Uzbek homes and destroyed their stores.”

“I’d like for my children to be able to leave,” she said. I asked where they could go and she didn’t know. “Uzbekistan isn’t letting anyone else in. They let in 80,000 and said they don’t have any more room. There are a 100,000 people lined up at the border. Those who went first to Uzbekistan were those who had no protection, who had nowhere else to go.” She is in regular contact with relatives in Tashkent, but says they are unable to do anything.

A few days ago, she spoke about how the family had begun the process of remodeling their house to put in an addition for their eldest son. They wanted a space ready for him so that he could marry and bring his future wife into their home. In a matter of a few days, they are willing to give it all up. “A part of me is ready to leave this all behind, to give up our house and everything for our family to be able to leave.”

While the men protect her neighborhood, she and her female neighbors huddle together at home. They have food, water, electricity and telephone service. “I hear talk about humanitarian relief being organized,” she said. “We have plenty of food. No one in our neighborhood will die due to a lack of food. What we need is protection. I’m very, very afraid of something happening.”

Saturday, June 12, 2010

One Family Waits Out the Osh Unrest

I became very worried about reading the news about the last two days of ethnic violence in Osh. I lived with an Uzbek family in Osh for close to a year. The mother traveled to my wedding in the United States, her first time ever on an airplane. She has three sons who are young men and I feared any of them could be at risk. I wondered what it must be like to live in fear in your own house, the place I also used to consider home. The Uzbek neighborhoods, or mahalas, are close knit. But they are also segregated by ethnicity and easily identifiable.

As soon as possible, I called to find out. Nargiza (name changed) said that her husband and her two sons that are in Osh spent all night guarding the street. The men sit together on the street, guarding their neighborhoods. “But they don’t have guns,” she said. “I don’t know how much they can do.”

She wanted her sons to stay home, but “they are grown up now, and don’t listen to me.”

Markets and workplaces have been closed for the past two days. Her youngest son was supposed to take his last exam to graduate high school today, but that didn’t happen. She said some houses were burned in a nearby neighborhood and that she heard gunshots. She heard that many of the nice, large shops that were constructed in recent years, many by Uzbeks, were looted.

“It’s been terrible,” she said. “Two nights and a day of violence.”

Nargiza has a stall at the market, where she sells dishes. Her dishes are in storage at her market stall. I asked if her goods were in damage of being looted. “I don’t know. I didn’t have time to think about that,” she said. “This happened so suddenly. I haven’t been there for the past two days.”

She was hopeful the unrest would blow over within a few days and said the presence of the troops seems to be helping.

I asked what relations at work would be like after this. How would her husband and son return to work, where most of their colleagues would be Kyrgyz? How would they be treated?

“Relations between the Uzbek and the Kyrgyz in the city are fine, very friendly,” she said. “This has been caused by wild people brought in from other places, rural areas in the south. It’s only been a problem since Bakiyev was removed.”

Friday, June 04, 2010

Spain Sierra bike trip - day 5

El Escorial to Soto del Real – an additional 47 kilometers and we are done. The first half had its ups and downs, but wasn’t too bad. And the second half had a welcomingly consistent downward slope.

The sights weren’t quite as interesting as the past days. We went through a couple of non-descript towns, as well as the pleasant, lively town of Berecerril de la Sierra, and the town of Manzanares de Real, which has a large 15th century castle. Unfortunately, the castle was closed today due to a private event, but it’s still striking to see it appear on the horizon, then growing ever larger and more overpowering as we draw nearer. Castles, cobblestone streets, monasteries, churches and ruins of watchtowers, walls and road make clear on a daily basis the presence of human life many centuries ago. It forces me to remember that I’m part of only a small sliver of history, of which only fragments will be remembered, or considered important.

I enjoyed an afternoon drink at a bar on the plaza in Manzanares de Real, listening to the lively Spanish music coming from inside the bar, seeing the local life on the plaza, with multiple storks looking on from their nests on a nearby steeple.

We made use of the excellent public transportation system (a bus and a train) to get ourselves and our luggage from our end point of Soto del Real to the train station in Madrid. From here we’ll depart for Zaragoza.

The standard bike tour includes one more day, biking to Madrid. We cut that short in order to be able to see friends. I think I could have handled one more day. But 4-5 days is probably a good amount for me, unless there were to be rest days provided in between the bike days.

Overall, I enjoyed the tour a lot. I got a lot of exercise, was able to explore several small, out-of-the-way places and was able to take in the places much more vividly by biking through them. Since this is my first bike tour, I have nothing to compare it to. But my impressions were:

Route – very good. Took in a variety of sites. The evening stops were located in interesting places. The least interesting was Soto del Real, but that was a good base and the hotel was super friendly.

Roads: very good. While we did have to spend some time on highways, there was a lot of time on roads with little traffic and good scenery.

Outfitting: The bikes were new. The quality was OK. They had Shimano gears. A little extra outfitting (a mirror, a light, gloves, a bungee or two to make use of the rack, a set of directions for each of us) would have been helpful, as would have a more detailed introduction to bike care.

Instructions: I loved that the tour was self guided. And we did make it from start to end. But the instructions could have used more detail to dummy-proof them. We definitely put on some extra distance and encountered some confusion due to the directions. While the instructions indicated a few highlights of places to visit, some more details about the stops (a map of each evening stop would be great) and the things we passed would have been helpful.

Flexibility: Excellent. Bike Spain was really accommodating in helping to set up a tour that met the particular dates we were available. When we had some problems (Mark not feeling well, a forgotten bag) they were quick to help resolve them.

Hotels: Very good. Our least favorite (in El Escorial) was a hotel the tour company doesn’t usually use. Their standard hotel was booked up. The others were all comfortable, well-located and with friendly, accommodating staff.

I hope there will be another bike tour in my future and I’d definitely look into the offerings of Bike Spain for the next time around. Next time I’ll be looking for some child-friendly accommodations through (child trailer, bike seat, routes I can complete with a 40+ pound kid on board). I’m thinking my next bike trip, especially in a Spanish-speaking country, will be with my son.

Bike circuit completed

I made it! Over 200 kilometers in mountainous territory. I was the only female cyclist I saw until the very end of the trip, when the terrain was easier. I always like accomplishing a goal, so I’m proud of doing it, am appreciative of the chance to both get so much exercise and explore an interesting area.

But right now, on the evening of the day four of biking, I’m exhausted. Utterly exhausted. I’m sitting at a train station waiting for a late train and dreaming of a bed. Mark was having a harder time cycling today than I was, and he got less sleep than I did last night, but has more energy. “It must be the pregnancy,” he said. “Because you got a good night’s rest.” Did I mention I’m two months pregnant? In a great contrast to the eternal nausea I felt during the first trimester with River, this time I barely feel any symptoms at all.

At the end of the ride, I was able to check email and received a note from my dad, who appears to be holding up well while caring for a 2.5 year old. He said that River is going to the pool, the beach or the boat every day, which sounds like a summer camp vacation for him. He also said that they have taught River to say things like “I like hot dish,” and “Ya sure, you betcha,” that I’ll be picking up a real Swede.

I think it’s good for him to be exposed to that aspect of his heritage, so that’s fine with me. But I’m going to have to try to figure out how to say things like “I like hot dish,” in Spanish.

After this bike trip, I’ve decided I want to do another, and I’d love to do it a few years from now with River. If you have any recommendations of good bike tours to do with kids (I’m ideally looking for luggage to be transferred to the lodgings each night, the ability to set our own pace, and a route and a bike that would be appropriate for hauling a youngster) please let me know. I have a preference for Spanish-speaking areas, but would consider any place. Also, I’m terrified of dogs, so places where dogs don’t roam freely and run after cyclists also get bonus points.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Spain Sierra bike trip – day 4

I think the mileage estimate on the instructions for today’s ride from Rascafria to San Lorenzo el Escorial was an underestimate. All I can think about looking back upon the day is up, up, up. Either I’m going to develop newly powerful legs and be able to barrel up hills in the future, or I’m going to turn around screaming any time I see an uphill.

I started off my morning with 17 kilometers of up. Pretty much constant up. Up a mountain. From 1200 meters to over 1800.

I can get myself up a decent hill or two if I know there is a descent or flatness at the top. The pain is temporary and I can push myself to overcome it. But here it was constant, a good 13 or so kilometers of non-stop up. I couldn’t ride up that, so I walked. And walked, and walked. I did well for the first half. I imagined myself taking a morning mountain stroll. I figured it should result in buns of steel. I appreciated the lack of traffic, the shaded walk through a fir forest, and the views of mountain slopes covered by trees.

When Mark passed me in the taxi, they asked if I wanted a ride. “No thanks,” I said. “I’ve only got 5-6 kilometers to go.” I was doing pretty well at that point. But somewhere in the last 5-6 kilometers, my strength was sapped. I was eating every half hour. I had to stop to rest. It ended up taking me three hours to cover the 10 miles. Yikes.

From there, we had a substantial downhill, possibly an equal distance of gliding. Yellow bushes flowered on the mountain slope and the air smelled sweet. Today was a public holiday, Corpus Christi, and the two mountain passes (ski resorts in winter) were packed with daytrippers coming to enjoy a hike.

We rode through a small town, Cercedilla, where wealthy people from Madrid have their second homes. There were some beautiful properties there and the cafes and shops were buzzing. I was tired, but the long downhill had provided some relief and I believed we were close to our destination, El Escorial. So I pushed myself on, wanting Mark to be able to see the famous palace and monastery before it closed at 6.

The directions indicated we had only four kilometers to go, so I was optimistic. But the highway seemed to go on an awfully long way. Long past when I expected we’d be riding through the town, I spied El Escorial from a distance, cathedral spires rising above a town perched upon a hill.

Then, when we got into the town, it was like a cruel joke. The road went up, and up, and up, and up. Straight up. Again, I resorted to walking.

We arrived at our hotel filthy, sweaty and tired, only to be told that we had to carry the bikes up a flight of stairs. Poor Mark.

Eventually, we managed to settle in, shower, find some good food (super huge portions and at least 10 choices for each course of the 17.50 menu at Restaurante Fonda Genera; – only bummer was that only a coffee is included as a drink. If you choose another drink, you are charged for it). We made it to El Escorial (right across the street from our hotel) and found enough energy to stroll the premises and appreciate the structure, the art and history. The library contains the oldest known book, from the 5th or 6th century. Wow.

Part of me is amazed I got here with my own leg power. Another part misses the small village. It’s much more tourist-oriented here, more expensive, less personal. Interactions in the smaller towns felt more intimate and I liked that.

Only one more day left in which the main activity of the day is accomplishing a physical feat. By late tomorrow night, we’ll be in Zaragoza with friends and then they will be in charge of arranging our schedule.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Spain Sierra bike trip – day 3

Today’s ride was a 36 kilometer ride from Buitrago de Lozoya to Rascafria. Due to the directions, which could really use some dummy-proofing, we added another several kilometers on to our journey. But today’s mistake resulted in us riding out to an old stone hermitage in the middle of a field, where cows and horses grazed and a shepherd was the only person around for miles. So while we were bummed about going a few kilometers uphill unnecessarily, at least it was memorable.

Highlights of today’s journey were:
• The great pedestrian/bike that goes from the village of Pinilla del Valle, through the villages of Alameda del Valle, Oteruelo del Valle, Los Gritos, and then Rascafria. It’s quiet and peaceful, has quite a bit of shade and is part of a network of hiking and biking paths in the area.

• Being able to turn around and see mountains behind me wherever I was, some of them with a bit of snow remaining near the summit. I know I’ll have to climb one of those mountains tomorrow in order to get out of this valley, but I’m enjoying the view while I’m here.

• The tour inside the El Paular Monastery. Wow. Amazing construction, amazing ornamentation, from 300-700 years ago. The Sheraton hotel next door is part of the original construction and is a fantastically ornate stone structure.

• The appearance of fresh mountain water (the public fountain in Lozoya is water fresh from the mountain, which I used to refill my water bottle) and trees. The appearance of greenery and the sound of running water is a welcome sight after seeing so much dry scrub.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find any remarkable food today. I was told the beef here is amazing. The grilled beef I got yesterday in Buirago de Lozoya was remarkable – tender and flavorful and juicy. But today we didn’t have much luck in our restaurant pickings. Another difficulty is the huge amount of pollen flying through the air. It’s easily visible and the wind occasionally blows it into soft, billowy piles. My eyes are red and bloodshot from constant itching.

My behind is a bit sore from the time in the saddle, but otherwise, I’m doing pretty well, hoping I can make it through tomorrow, which is the toughest day of the tour. Four days is the most I’ve ever cycled in a row. Mark is suffering, but I’m loving it and am already dreaming of what will be my next bike tour.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Spain Sierra bike trip – day 2

Day 1 of the bike trip was good – long and at times tough, but with lots of beautiful scenery to enjoy. I went 57 kilometers, though I think it was more, especially since I got lost the moment I started out. The highlights were:

• The village of Torrelaguna and the most amazing bakery (Panaderia Martin (calle Cardenal Cisneros 11; Tel: 91 843 03 11) we found there. My traveling companion said he didn’t think there was more than one bakery this good in the entire state of Hawaii. It was by far the best I’ve come across in Spain – with healthy options such as whole wheat toast and sandwiches and smoothies, together with the usual sweet goodies.

• The wildflowers – red poppies, white, purple, and yellow flowers dotted the fields everywhere and perfumed the air. Beautiful.

• The views of the el Atazar reservoir, especially up close.

• The quiet country roads, where it was only me, the birds and the wind.

• The cool afternoon breeze and the bright blue sky

• The town of Buitrago de Loyoza with it’s medieval section, thick Moorish stone wall with cool, dark arches, friendly people, and the best menu del dia I’ve had so far in Spain at Asador Restaurante Las Murallas (Plaza de la Constitucion 3; Tel: 91 868 04 84) - a steal at 10 euro.

Least favorite part – the 10 km or so uphill climb out of Torrelaguna in the intense heat. At this time of year, the best times to ride are before 10:30 a.m. and after 6 p.m. It makes for a very split day and is tough to time the rides, especially since we thought we’d take it slow and would have all day to cover the distance. Also, the urbanizaciones, or developments that have sprung up on the outskirts of many of these villages. They look like character-less suburbs.

Overall, I’m loving being on the road, seeing the land up close, and exploring the small towns of this region of Spain.