Athens

We are currently sitting in Erzurum in Eastern Turkey waiting still for our Iranian Visas. If you have followed the saga of the Visa then you will know we applied through IranianVisa.com and paid for a 2-5 day service on 7 September. We chased the international money through the system to pay for the express service and then sat and waited three and a half weeks. It’s funny how when people want money from you they reply to emails straight away and then they go quiet when they have been paid.

Ultimately we were told we could travel to Erzurum (about 200 miles from Iranian border) to pick up the VISAs rather than waste time sitting in Athens (which is SO expensive). So we packed up and moved the 1800 miles across the Turkish mountains to Erzurum only to find the company had lied about picking them up here. It seems the Visa application is tied to where the application is lodged (Athens). So after two visits per day to the Consulate here we have to start applying all over again and, in effect, have wasted six weeks. In some ways we are very frustrated but what concerns us more is the weather. The temperature is dropping here and everybody says the ‘window’ to get through the mountains of North of Turkey and Iran is end of October – beginning of November otherwise the roads are too dangerous due to the cold. The clock is ticking.

We are changing the update format as with the previous updates it took us so long to write them days passed sitting still. Rather than doing a day-by-day account from now we will now merge sections together. It will also greatly aid Action for Blind People and Dolphin both of whom are extracting details and transferring them to their blog and sites of the journey which they are kindly keeping. We will still be recording our experiences in the same way through our personal journals for later publication but for now onwards to the past.  As always it is now time to take you back over the previous weeks.

Day 43 (12th September) to day 56 (25th September)

As with many other days during this time period we made so many visits to the embassies. We would like to point out that the Pakistan embassy itself and all the staff were so helpful and our Visa was cleared, and paid for, with the minimum of fuss and we are so grateful to all the staff there for the assistance and help they provided and their wishes of “Happy journeys” as we left. The same was true of the Indian embassy once we had completed every scrape of paper they passed our way and after the allotted eight days had passed and despite Bernard worrying – as always – because we have not heard anything. So it is that we have ended up with both Visas without any serious problems – even our female Guardian of the Indian Empire smiled at Bernard’s over-elaborate bow once we had a precious passports back in our possession! It just took time and time is something we are getting used to waiting to pass before we can move on.

The visit by Jim (Bernard’s dad) was a welcome relief from the boredom of waiting as it encouraged us to get out and about a little more to places apart from Embassies!We had several wonderful days out visiting such places as the Byzantium Museum and we watched the changing of the guard at the Parliament building.

The Byzantium museum itself tells the story of the evolution and changes which occurred through the history of Greece as we know today. The museum had an audio description player but after waiting for about ten minutes for it to be charged we find that it is only available in Greek! Then again, much like everything else we have encountered in Greece, the entry was free for visually impaired people and some of the exhibits have labels to indicate you can touch them. The problem, as always, is that stone is stone and statues, after a while, all feel the same so I did not really get much from the tactile. There were, however, plenty of information boards which Bernard read about the history of the period until his voice gave out.

Picture of the crowds of tourists at the Parliament Buildings. Cathy and Jim are in the foreground. Bernard is in there somewhere!Our slow meandering across the days also took in the changing of the guard at the Parliament building which we stumbled on quite by accident as a large crowd had gathered. It should have been obvious really as all the tourist coaches pull up at a quarter past the hour, every hour. For some reason we never found out the changing of the guard occurs at this time. So the very elaborate and stylised ‘performance’ was acted out to the massed ranks of video cameras and the click, click, click echoed all around me.

Bernard had, by this time, taken off to join the ranks of clickers and so Jim described what was happening as the very handsome tall soldiers slowly and very loudly stampedPicture of Cathy with one of the Parliament Sentries. their way with high steps to their positions outside the Parliament building. The Officer in charge of the ceremony realised Bernard wanted to take a picture of me with one of these really tall handsome soldiers. He waved to Bernard “One minute”, crossed to the soldier, whispered in his ear and then indicated I should move close to the immobile statue which the soldier appeared to be.

I whispered “Thank you” at the totally immobile soldier and Bernard swears a tiny smile appeared on his face but it was gone in a flash.We moved on through Athens exploring and spending time meandering around the National Gardens behind the Parliament building which were cool and in the shade of thousands of trees with pools full of terrapins, with tortoises walking across the paths as we sit and drink milk shakes in a cafe in the gardens. I wondered what the obstacles were we kept detouring around until somebody deemed to tell me that it was due to large tortoises wandering across the path. They were in the heat searching, like all of us, for a decent bit of shade during the height of the heat when the whole of Athens goes to sleep between 2-4pm.

Even the soldiers during this time are called by the officer to elaborately march and swop their sentry duty location so that shade relieves at least one of them for 15 minutes out of 30.

Each evening we end up sitting on the roof garden under the night stars and on one such evening a jug of wine was delivered to the table with the compliments of a man at the bar. So began our introduction and time with Gordon from Scotland which was to stretch through our Visa waiting period for the weeks to come. Bernard went over to thank him and he joined us and we spent the rest of the evening being regaled by stories of his trips in days gone by through the region driving Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) and of his spectacular motorcycle crashes; just what we needed to hear! Not only were uproariously funny stories exchanged but we did also gleam a lot of useful information about the roads in Turkey, driving habits and places to stay as we talked into the night long after Jim had gone to bed. Gordon was the soul of kindness and generosity and we were to spend many evenings in his company over the coming weeks (along with his equally kind colleague Davie) as they told us of their work in the Petro-Chemical industry.

On another evening we also met Bert and his wife Pat from Canada, spending time laughing about one of the meals we can anticipate when we arrive which seems to consist of a mixture specifically designed to artery block any normal individual (chips, cheese, hot chilli sauce, hot dogs and all the trimmings).

Bernard, in one of his innocent but mischievous voices, asked if Bert was on Simvastatin’s for cholesterol and Bert confirmed he was. Quick as a flash, Bernard responded “That’s a 40mg meal that one Bert. If we miss out the cheese will 10mg be enough as that’s all we are carrying?”  Bert realised he was being teased and there was much laughter about what it means to be getting older and how you know it to be true when your pill bag is bigger than your handbag.

Bert does work for the Lions in Canada and in particular, for what they call, ‘Seeing dogs’ but we know as ‘Guide Dogs’ such as my own at home in England called Biscuit. He told us they had taken pictures of the bike to remember the web address for when they get back home in a month’s time due to their connection to Visual Impairment in this way. Bert was born in Austria and is visiting sites which have special historical significance for his family; one such place was Athens. He has a picture of members of his family taken at a specific part of the Acropolis and that very day he had taken a picture of himself in exactly the same place. He was capturing a link between time and people gone from their lives. It is as if we all bring these people, somehow, closer to us as we think of them and finger the edges of the images we create in their memory.

They talked of how difficult it must be to do this trip all alone with no help or assistance. We always play down this aspect as the journey is what it is. We knew when we were preparing it would be this way through the long, long, preparation and with so many ups and downs along the way.

Many, many people have done this journey alone and we are no different than them. They shook their heads at what we are doing and Pat laughs when she realises she has more kilograms in clothes for their time away than I have for a year. She wonders how it is possible and she is not sure she could get her case to be any lighter! Bert just smiles at this according to Bernard and I know they are doing the ‘man thing’ about women and clothes (probably rolling their eyes at each other) and I suppress the urge to bury my elbow in his ribs (this once).

We say goodnight after a really nice evening of talking and laughter over several glasses of wine and wish them well on their onward journey to Austria.

With Jim now being in full tourist mode we have also been investigating day trips to ‘do the tourist thing’ as we call it. It’s funny really but neither Bernard nor myself think of ourselves as tourists. Why this is so we are not sure but we think it is the travelling on the bike rather than the arriving which we are missing at the moment. All we are doing is killing time until we can move on. We have to move on. We both feel it very strongly but for now we are unable to do so.

Picture of Cathy on a horse while Bernard would only risk the smaller one!One trip we did book was the ‘three island’ trip which takes in Aegina, Poros and Hydra and we left at 7am in the morning and came back to the hotel (after being dropped off 2km away in the dark) at 9pm at night. The journey involved a coach trip to the boat and then a day-long trip between the islands where we had a short time to explore. One of the islands has no vehicles at all apart from the refuse truck which trundled up and down the town just as we arrived. I went horse riding through the cobbled streets after Bernard convinced me it was for more than just children! In the end he too ended up on a horse as we clip-clopped our way through the narrow cobbled streets of Hydra. The ride was long enough to remind me that sometimes a motorcycle seat is actually more comfortable! It was really nice that the young man leading the two horses recognised the care needed as many times (Bernard told me) there were head-height obstacles. He would guide the horse to ensure I missed them otherwise I would have ended up in the street on my backside!

I think the highlight of the day was the very fast powerboat trip we took to a private island to go swimming (the previous day Bernard and Jim spent two hours walking through shops doing the ‘girlie’ shopping thing with me to find a costume and the inevitable question to Bernard of “Does my bum look big in this?”) We transferred from cruise boat to one which swept over the sea at a fair old rate of knots kicking spray high behind and alongside (and over us at times). As always, the staff on this powerboat were very lovely and considerate and it was they who tookPicture of Bernard and Cathy on the power boat. the picture which has one of those rare appearances of Bernard!

The water was warm and I spent a lovely hour swimming around the Aegean sea with Bernard standing up to his knees with his trousers rolled up shouting ‘Left, right, straight on’ much to the amusement of the other swimmers who all got out of my way! Even Jim joined in with the swimming; not having swam for many years and Bernard has promised to hand over these photographs in exchange for a brown envelop stuffed with money!

We sat on the beach sipping cold drinks and eating watermelon until the time was over. All to soon we were back on the powerboat and blasting through the ocean back to the Picture of Cathy waving from the sea.liner and our three-and-a-half hour trip back to the port of Piraeus under a beautiful failing sunshine of the sunset which Bernard described as we sailed into port for the coach back (nearly) to the Hotel.

In the blink of an eye the visit by Jim was at an end as the week had whizzed by. It was time to take the metro and train to Athens International Airport (about one-an-a-half hours away). On the morning of Jim’s departure when everything had been concluded (including a trip to the hairdresser for me arranged a week ago!) a pickpocket decided to steal his flight bag which he had left by reception as he paid his bill. Fortunately the only things of consequence in the bag were his reading glasses which he managed to get replaced in a local opticians; with locals apologising for the event. Things were definitely conspiring against us but little did we know what was yet to come!

In the end I managed to keep my appointment at the hairdressers and it was such a familiar but unfamiliar experience. The smells were familiar but it was very disorientatingPicture of the sun setting over the ocean as night is falling. not to be able to understand what people were saying. Bernard described and explained everything in the salon and he assured me the staff were lovely but I was very nervous and asked him to stay rather than disappear as he usually would. I think I was also worried coming out looking like a skin-head without even knowing!

In the end Bernard joined in and had a haircut as he patiently waited but he was ‘miffed’ (I think) when they would not charge him for his 30 second electric razor haircut down to a number two! He tried to pay, he really did, but I think they felt sorry for him as they teased the other Greek men’s hair into elaborate designs while he just sat, pointed to the razor, held up two fingers and repeated “Number 2 all over”. So, he ended up with a free haircut.

Over time I settled and relaxed as the staff were so nice as they guided me from chair to sink etc. and I set my now head shaven companion free to get a cup of coffee next door at the cafe where Jim was watching the world go by in the sun. Every ten minutes, though, he would reappear and check I was fine; like a mother hen really but I was grateful.The trip, with my new hair, to the Airport turned out to be somewhat different than we had planned as, on this very day, the airport train staff went on strike and so we spent some time working out which bus to get after already getting two trains on the underground. Eventually we set off for a very packed ride of well over an hour; although I had a seat as a very nice Greek man leapt out of his according to Bernard!

Picture of Jim taken on the dock side of Piraeus.Going through the usual formalities at the airport Jim nearly managed to get himself arrested for entering the departure area without a boarding pass after going walk-about and there was an exchange between him and the airport officials. Not a wise thing to do when they all carry big guns! He escaped unscathed and not at all chastened by his experience. What can we say? He has been walking around this planet for a few years and probably nothing will ever change him!

Waving off the retired and intrepid traveller as he set off through the layers of security we turned back to find the bus for the long ride back to base. Wouldn’t you know it. The bus we got on broke down and so we had to change buses. Finding another bus we sat gratefully in our seats crammed in like sardines due to the train strike. Backpackers with huge cases – much bigger than we carry for the two of us – are all around and we wonder how many clothes people actually need. Perhaps it is just our perception which has changed but people do seem to carry so much. During the bus ride Bernard nervously tracked the journey as we did not know where to get off to find the Metro station for the two trains back. The satellite navigator is turned on every now and then to check how far from the first metro station we are; yes, he had marked where we originally got the bus! I would hear “10 kilometres” and then “5 kilometres” as he counted down to the station. The really funny thing is, much to Bernard’s chagrin, everybody got off the bus when it stopped right outside the metro! Sometimes he is too clever by half! Not that he will ever admit it.

In the evening on the roof watching the night draw in we are starting to feel like ‘regulars’ in the local and Manuel does not even ask what we would like anymore; he just arrives with drinks. WePicture of Bernard, Manuel and Cathy on the roof garden. watch the new arrivals who stay for two days before moving on and then the whole process starts again with the thump of heavy cases up and down the stairs; often the lifts are not working. We noticed particularly the Italians seem to bring such big cases and it is only by sitting still we have started to appreciate these things. The hotel staff tell us that the South Americans bring the most and they all laugh at the amount people bring to wear in 38 degree temperatures.

Once again we were now alone and our thoughts turn to preparing the bike for the next stage of the journey. Gordon has arranged for a space in a garage so that we could work on the bike in peace without a crowd gathering to watch our every move. Oils are changed along with filters. Gaskets which look suspicious are scraped off and new ones put in place ever so carefully with silicon sealant to make sure no leaks occur. Brakes are adjusted, cylinder heads tightened down, valves adjusted and every nut and bolt is examined. It took about nine hours of none-stop work to complete everything.

‘Bertha from Berlin’ (as we have long nick-named the 1990 BMW motorcycle) was pristine by the time we finished and we are confident in ‘her’. Bernard tells me all bikes are female, although, personally, I think he has been speaking too much French and it is coming through in this feminisation of a motorcycle.

Once the bike had been checked and Bernard is happy with everything, days and days passed in writing Update three (part one and two). It seemed to go on forever and even when the writing was finished all the photographs had to be edited by Bernard and this alone took so much time as we go through hundreds of pictures. It was after writing update three we decided really it could not be done in this way any more. It did take days and as we travel further and further afield we will not have the time to sit still for so long particularly in the more ‘challenging’ environments.

A form of inertia sets in while you are sitting still and your whole mental world changes. When you are on the move you get into a rhythm and everything is comfortable and certain. You lose this rhythm sitting still. Bernard feels it more than I in many ways as he gets used to the bike and the weight when we are on the move. He loses this when he is not riding and has to get it back. It seems hard on him for several days; then he is back in ‘the rhythm’ of handling a very heavy bike which it undoubtedly still is.

Picture Cathy outside the Hotel ready for the big off from Athens.During several days we continued to exchange emails with the Iranian Visa company due to the length of time our express 2-5 day visa was taking; three weeks so far! After many emails we were told we could pick up the VISA at Erzurum on the Eastern side of Turkey (about 1800 miles away). Our boredom threshold had been surpassed in Athens and so we decided to move on after we sought assurances regarding Erzurum. We were relieved to be on the move. It felt really, really good and the day we were to leave, would you believe, Greek Customs decided to go on strike and this act shut the petrol flow to the country which then caused panic buying. Result? No petrol!

Talk about things conspiring against us and we had to then explore how we can get 14 litres to fill the bike when all was sold out according to everybody we spoke to and asked.We did manage to get petrol the next day after visiting and speaking to a very nice young Indian man we had met at the petrol station where all the oils were bought for the bike’s service. He managed to convince his boss he would not miss the 14 litres we needed to fill our tank and get us far away from the capital; all the petrol was reserved for his local customers.

Eventually we loaded up the bike and for the first time in weeks we feel exceptionally good as we are back on the road and leaving Athens. The thought of leaving even cheers Bernard up at the prospect of driving in the traffic which he has come to loath. He is eager and cannot wait to launch us into the mayhem of metal waiting to surround us at every junction!

He really cannot wait to get moving. Next stop Turkey.

Postscript

We would like to thank Gordon and Davie in Athens for all of their help and kindness in spending time with us. Davie and Gordon would not let us pay for even a drink; believe us we did try!

Picture of Davie (left) and Gordon (right).Even when we bought them a few cigarettes and beers in thanks for all their kindness the night before we left (from a supermarket)  it was as if we had done something far more than we actually had.

We really cannot thank them enough for lightening our evenings and for their company during a really depressing wait.Our thanks too are aimed at all the hotel staff and to Manual on the roof garden who was a real pleasure to be around in the evenings as we wiled away the evenings waiting for Tehran to come through!

A very big thanks to you all for everything.

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