Bike Training in Provence

Provence is a place where the name alone triggers the smell of lavender and dreams of endless vineyards. I’d never been there before, but thats exactly what it was, plus some. There were meadows of red poppies as far as the eye could see, olive trees and strawberry fields, and picturesque villages on hill tops seemingly unchanged for hundreds of years.

Vines, poppies and an olive tree

I stayed between Carpentras and Pernes-les-Fontaines, visiting nearby Avignon, Monteux and Blauvac to name a few. Dinners included red wines from nearby Chateuneuf-du-Pape and freshly picked, local asparagus and artichokes. I stayed with 23 amazing individuals in our own Chateau, with a courtyard fit for a regal wedding, and we were all given performance street bikes that weighed less than my right arm to use as transport.

Practicing my French Duck face

During the days, we had a combination of hard and “soft” skills training, everything from bike mechanics to public speaking. We were on our way to become tour Leaders, not guides, since “leaders” implies we also have co-leaders and teamwork skills. We had to learn to be interested, not only interesting, and speak about our regions and activities with passion that couldn’t be staged. We learned how to use an intraweb interface that takes me back to the days of the internet in 1999 – its extremely mind boggling to filter through html links, url sites that cant be reached, tens of thousands of pages of information, and other trip resources without google.

My training group, aka Missy Elliot

Our group was mainly European, plus a few dual citizen North Americans, and about two-thirds female. Everyone spoke two or more languages, and the collective travel experience and skills in that group made all of us feel individually inadequate. I made some lasting friendships, and others I’ll never see again, and two of us didn’t even make it thru training and returned home with an abrupt end to their Backroads career.

Just another picture perfect Provence town

It’s funny how France keeps calling me back; first, a spontaneous backpacking trip in Bretagne over New Years, and now, the opportunity to get paid to learn about bikes and cycling in Provence. I thank Backroads for the opportunity, and can’t believe I’ve started making money while traveling to new places in my favourite countries.

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Another Icelandic summer comes to an end

The definition of summer in Iceland isn’t very defined. Summer is when its not winter. Its when the grass is greenish, the moss turns neon, and the leaves are alive. It’s a time when the temperature can go higher than 10 degrees (but not necessarily). The sun shines and its rays actually give off heat (and a tan!). The average temperature in June is only 11 degrees. Anything over 18 degrees is kind of a heat wave, and Icelanders lose their clothes as easily as we lose the nights. This year, summer came in May, when the countryside dethawed and it stopped getting dark.

Hiking Fimmvörðuháls with my best friend Moli

This is a time when Icelanders seem to come out of hibernation. After 8 months of winter, holed up in that thing called ‘real life,’ then people come out to play. Then the days revolve around hiking, horsebackriding, summerhouses, camping, fishing, barbeques and no need for much sleep. And much more than that, summer means festivals.

on horse tour in Mývatnssveit

Now that summer is gone, we start looking forward to those holidays and festivals next summer. Iceland is probably the only country I know of that actually has a national public holiday for the first day of summer, and this year it was April 20th. For some reason other than religious ones, Ascension day (May 25) is the first long weekend where traffic jams to get north out of town can build up from the Hvalfjordur tunnel all the way to Mosfellsbaer.

Menningarnótt with my sister and oldest friend from Canada

Downtown Reykjavik is a family friendly party ground, with tens of thousands of people flooding the streets and Arnarholl, on only a few days a year. June 17th, Independence day, is the first major summer event. Ironically, the Gay Pride parade has higher attendance, and rainbow coloured balloons and confused gender identities make people of all ages happy. Menningarnott in mid August is the most drunken and dancy festival, and at this time of summer, short nights have started to reappear and it’s the first time that lighting fire works makes sense. Its also around then that the first northern lights show up, making tourists very happy that they don’t have to return to Iceland in midwinter to check that off their bucket list.

Herjólfsdalur filling up for Þjóðhátíð

The most defining part of summer for me, and many other Icelanders, is unquestionably Þjóðhátíð. Literally translated, this just means ´the nations holiday,´ and is held all around Iceland around the end of July/beginning of August, but the biggest one is always in Vestammanaeyjar. My father is from Vestmannaeyjar, which makes about 24% of the population my aunts, uncles and second or third cousins. This sleepy island on the south coast has a year-round population of around 4,000, but during Þjóðhátíð, it can swell to 16,000, perhaps even as many as 20,000 this year.

seaswimming beach days in Reykjavik… not as warm as they look but still an important part of every good summer

You know summer is coming to an end when the next festival people are gearing up for is Airwaves, which happens annually at the end of October. Airwaves is even bigger than Þjóðhátíð, but doesnt quite have the same ´Icelandicness´ to it with all those tourists and international bands… and lack of lopapeysas (hand knit sweaters with Grandma´s typical patterns and barn colours). The countdown to summer 2018 has officially begun.

Summer in Iceland

September creeps up on you like the chill of sunset sneaks under your skin after a sunny day in Iceland. All of a sudden its getting dark at 8:30 when you’ve grown accustomed to never fearing nightfall, and you start to realise how much you appreciate the warmth of the sunrays in this sub-arctic island.

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a glorious summer day in the countryside

Reykjavik awakens for the summer months, with a noticeable population boom from all the tourists walking downtown decked out in outdoor gear and big-lens cameras. People are out and about, drinking coffee and beers on patios, mothers walking their babies in killer heels, and the city folk flock to the countryside for hiking, bathing and summerhouse time.  There’s also a surge of concerts and festivals, the biggest two days this year being Gay Pride day and Menningarnótt (Culture Night).

the view of Reykjavik from the top of Esjan

Gay Pride in Iceland is probably the only place in the world where its more of a family event than a sexy, nudist, liberal movement. Last year’s gay pride saw Reykjavik’s current city Mayor dress up as a drag queen in the parade, and this year the parade, open-air concerts and sunny weather forced all road-traffic to be replaced by hundreds of thousands of rainbow-decorated people wandering around town.

Menningarnótt was even more vivacious, blessed by the best weather day imaginable, and organized into a 4 page spread schedule in one of the local newspapers. There was always 20 things going on at once, and there was no way to pick what to go to, since there were always two things happening simultaneously that peaked your interest, compounded by 5 other things that you had no idea what they were and your curiosity sometimes got the best of you. I had ten friends in town, 2 from London and 8 from New York, so I spent most of the day battling through a crowd with 8 obnoxious American men in tow, so my more mellow British friends had no difficulty in finding us in the crowd. I visited the Faroese embassy for some rotten food and nordic cider, saw a choir sing Psalms at Hallgrimskirkja, shopped an outdoor market that resembled more a garage sale, and listened to the informal Kaffibarinn mens choir sing acapella, pissed drunk at Austurvollir. There was always live music, and a couple main stages where the night came to a close with a bang. A sparkling Harpa and firework show sealed the deal, unimpressive by international standards, but a big enough deal to Icelanders that a parking spot within a 5 km radius of downtown could not be found as everyone came to town to see it, all 5 minutes of it.

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the concert crowd at sunset on Culture Night

I went to Bræðslan, a 2 day music festival in Borgafjörður, a small sea-side village in Iceland’s easternmost fjords. Glen Hansard was the headliner, but

Glen Hansard performing at Braedslan

like a true icelandic concert, Jón Sigurðsson and some other of Icelands other most famous artists ended the concert. The final encore included everyone coming on stage and jamming together, improvising and freestyling with a

my cousin Sara, cooling off

crazy light show in the abandoned fish processing plant where the amped crowd flocked. It was July 23rd, the weekend when summer finally arrived, and people spent the days lounging in the sea and icy rivers to keep cool. We tented at the base of  a place called Elf hill, and the magic in the place was real, atleast to me.

One of the riding days on the Egilstaðir riding tour takes us to Sanddalur, a remote sandy valley accessible only by foot, horse or 4×4, believed by the superstitious to be rich in elf life. Their troll-like faces are cut out in the jagged rock, blaring out from the steep, sandy slope, and while we take our lunch break there, the restlessness of the horses can only be explained by one thing – elf presence.

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Sanddalur

Growing up in Iceland and Canada has given me a lot of privileges, but they say allergies are a bigger problem for the advantaged, since 30% of people develop allergies from having too much hygiene. I’m allergic to summer, all the pollens and freshly cut grass, even horses themselves and the sun-dried dust clouds a herd of them kicks up.  This was the coldest summer on record in 75 years for Iceland, and even the warmer east only saw summer fully bloom in late July so I survived more comfortably than expected. Still, I frequently suffered from a runny nose, snored from congested sinuses, and breathed a little raspy from asthmatic suffocation. Ironically, the hottest days were just this last week, with temperatures reaching 20 degrees even though the confused trees have started to golden. Now the rains will start to come, but with the darker skies come northern lights, a sight that makes the arrival of fall more welcoming.

Why travel to the Southern Hemisphere?

worldI’ve been realizing just how much a difference exists between the ‘north’ and ‘south.’ These are often terms to distinguish between the ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ nations, synonymous with terms that divide the first-world/third-world and western/non-western countries, since a poverty divide is strangely apparent geographically.

Even crazier to understand is that most of the earth’s landmass is in the northern hemishpere, and 90% of the human population inhabits this land north of the equator. Two-thirds of Africa, almost all of asia, the entire continent of Europe and North America, and even a part of South America sit north of the equator, hosting 5.7 billion people, while the other HALF of the world only houses about  650 million people. This also leads the Southern hemishpere to be significantly less polluted than the north, with less industry, development or infrastructure.

Less people means less crowding, less tourists, and less traffic, and also means more natural habitat, more ocean, and milder seasons. And, when we are in the middle of blistering winter, somewhere north of the 49th parallel, we could fly to the same latitude south of the equator and be in the middle of summer again with long, bright days! So interesting and complex, the way of the earth – rotations and axis and all that jazz. I would have considered myself a genius if I had been the first to figure this out – one could literally have summer all year long if they traveled in sync with season changes and the angle of the earth on its axis. Or, I guess you could just live in the tropics all year round.

It is just after the winter equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, so thankfully the days are slowly getting longer. However, it is still pitch black at around 5 pm, and I couldn’t imagine a better time to travel South. Tomorrow I fly through Houston (which, crazily enough, is not having normal sub-tropic weather and they could benefit from heading further south) enroute to Buenos Aires, where the temperature will be around 30 degree highs and 14 hours of daylight. After I’ll go further south, to Patagonia and the Antarctic Peninsula, where days will be nearly 24 hrs long, but, unfortunately the temperatures will drop a little in exchange.