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    Friday, July 27, 2007

    Mission Accomplished Blog: Flying with 200 Pound of Gear through 4 Countries

    For those of you curious how I get my load on the planes....

    It had been over a year since I had to move my 200+ pound load of bicycle and filming equipment by airplane and I gave myself the ultimate challenge in June-July, 2007 indeed. My mission was to fly from Rwanda to Tanzania for the ZIFF Film Festival, then from Zanzibar to France for a vacation with a lovely friend Kelly from the Bay Area, and finally take yet another flight from France back down to West Africa in Lome, Togo. 3 Flights. What made the mission even more challenging was the fact that I made the decision to do all this flying last minute and thus did not have the proper lead time to contact the airlines for permission to waive my excess baggage. It was time for maximum creative action!

    First there was the flight from Rwanda to Tanzania. I was way behind schedule and the buses were not an option as there really are not any going where and when I wanted. So I wrote a proposal to Rwandair Express and went directly to the headquarters to meet the manager and then to the ticketing office to meet the marketing manager. Fortunately I had met a reporter who wanted to cover the Peace Pedalers story and I asked him if he would mention Rwandair Express’ support in the article and he agreed. This was the ammunition I needed to get my proposal approved—-not only for free excess baggage, but for a free flight as well! The marketing manager assured me that if the article came out he would approve my request and set me up with a free flight and waived my excess baggage, thus saving me about $800 on the flight! Mission accomplished! I was able to teleport myself from the mountains of Rwanda to the beaches of Zanzibar for pennies and got there in time for an incredible sunset at Africa House Hotel!

    My second challenge would be a highly discounted flight from Zanzibar to Paris on a German airline called Condor. I had only 5 days from when I booked the flight until it left to somehow get permission to waive the 130 pounds of excess weight, which would have cost me upwards of 500 dollars. After several calls over the internet to the airlines in Germany and many unanswered emails all I could manage to get was a waiver to bring my bike on the plane free of charge. However, the email confirmation did not say how heavy the bike could be, so that was my open door. I went to work finding a strong box that could handle not only my bike but all the heavy gear in my kit to create one “bike box” that ended up weighing 55 kilos, or over 125 pounds! The other bag was my trailer and Ortlieb dry bag at about 25 kilos so it was a “standard checked bag”

    When I arrived at the airport in Zanzibar I was set for the bike and other checked bag but I still had two massive carryon bags weighing 20+ kilos and you are only allowed one weighing 8 kilos. How to get over this hurdle? I had my good friend Anna with me and she kept one of my carryon bags outside while I went through security to the boarding gate. I then made a dash out to give her one more hug goodbye and grabbed the second carry of my Pelican camera case and proceeded to reenter security again. The guy at the door unfortunately recognized me and questioned me about the bag. I gave him my best puppy dog eyes and made up a story that Anna decided not to come with me and be my filming assistant and I now needed to bring the camera to France with me. His reply was, “tip?”. I had 10,000 shillings left in my pocket, about 7 dollars, and he was more than happy to let me pass with this. I was soon boarding the cheap flight up to Paris only paying 7 dollars for my excess baggage and teleported from a rocking music and film festival to sipping Bordeaux wine in Paris with Kelly. Mission Accomplished.

    In Paris I gave myself just one day to get a proposal to yet another super discount airline Royal Air Moroc to allow me to bring my excess baggage back down to West Africa. Kelly and I made the mission to the ticket office in hopes we would find a manager to accept the proposal and get it green lighted while we were off riding and camping on the beaches in the south of France. We met a manager named Owett who appeared to understand the request, made a few phone calls, and said the bike would be “no problem”. She gave me no papers or documentation, just her word that all would be okay and it was taken care of. She spoke little English and I no French so I trusted that somehow it was okay to stop thinking about this and go on vacation. I took her business card and that’s all the proof I really had.

    We went on my exquisite holiday thinking all was set with good old Royal Air Moroc and after some long delays due to visa issues (you actually need prearranged visas for most countries in West Africa, I was soon to learn) the day of July 20 finally arrived to catch my flight from Paris to Lome, Togo. This would be the trickiest mission of all, flying out of a major airport without the ability to give “tips” to gate masters and with computer systems and regulations far more strict than most places.

    I arrived at 4:45AM for my 6:30AM flight to Casablanca, Morocco with my massive cart with the a huge 55 kilo bike box, 25 kilo trailer bag and my two big heavy carry on bags. They are VERY strict about only having one carryon in Europe, versus two in USA, so I brought two carts with me and left one strategically out of line in my sight but just enough out of theirs. The trick was keeping it close enough so when security saw a cart sitting alone I was close enough for me to claim it was mine before they destroy it, but far enough so the ticket folks don’t know what I’m up to. I’m so sneaky!

    When I hit the checkin I told her my story about Owett giving me the okay to bring my bike up to 50kilos. But, as I feared, there was “nothing in the system”, “no telefax” and nothing that gave any indication that she approved it. Because it was so early, there was no way for them to call the office. The quote for my excess baggage was almost 600 dollars—about the same as my airfare!

    I was persistent, friendly and had full intentions of NOT paying a cent for my excess baggage. I had put Royal Air Moroc on the website per the proposal I gave to Owett and got the manager to see this, my letter I presented to Royal Air Moroc, and gave her some stickers and bracelets to prove we were legit. She would not budge. She was to the book and was calling everyone she could to see if there was any way to get in touch with Owett. She finally caved just 30 minutes before the flight was to depart and I gave her my one lighter laptop bag and a helmet to check as my one carry on and one “personal item”. Both items get a coveted “Cabin Baggage” tag allowing you to take it through security. This was a my second strategic move on my part as you’ll soon discover.

    After I said my thanks to the manager I darted off to security. But before I entered I had to gently remove the “Cabin Baggage” tag from my cycling helmet and put it on the 25 pound Pelican Case and then strap the helmet to my laptop bag. Now I had two “legitimate” carry on bags approved by the ticket agents, and supposedly weighed. I went through security with full confidence and carried my 25 pound camera case as if it were a light, simple case so as not to let on that it was a beast of a load. The guy stopped me, looked at my bags and I confidently showed him my two cabin baggage tags and walked right by. I was in! Mission Accomplished!

    So, I managed to get myself from Rwanda to Tanzania to France to Togo for 7 dollars in extra fees and for a price so low on budget airfares it was impossible to pass up a holiday in France. It’s not easy, but with some creativity and finagling my mojo with excess baggage continues to flow! I won’t need to test this again for a while as I’ll be on the ground all the way to up to and through Europe. Shouldn’t need to test this until February 2009 when I head to Brazil for Carnival and to start stage 3 form South to North America.

    Over and out from Casablanca, Morocco!

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007

    Plan B: Off to Benin

    So I’m on the border of Togo and Benin now and my original plan was to start a small surf club for the community here in a town called Aneho and learn some French. However, my plans have changed. I arrived yesterday after a 50KM ride along the ocean from the capital Lome and I arrived to find the beach littered with endless human turds (aka Poo Poo, crapola, kah kah). The Togolese people have been using the beach as a bathroom in this area for generations, and during my visit to checkout the surf I was accompanied by at least two dozen people doing their number.

    Now I have indeed surfed in some yucky water. San Diego is famous for poor water quality at various breaks. And the fact is that these guys usually poo above the high tide mark so it’s not in the water, really. But what added to my turnoff was the vast amounts of trash that accompanied the poo. Not only was it a bathroom, but the beach was a dump. Endless plastic bags and bottles, car parts, mattresses, glass chunks, syringes and other atrocities like drug attics and riff raff crushed my vision pretty quick. Bottom line, I just did not the get the vibe and I do want to spend a month in this area.

    I don’t have the time to commit to educate the locals about their age old habits and I decided to leave that battle to someone else. My plan was to spend a month or two building a club to stoke out the youth, but this education effort would take years to do it right. Finally, the vision of learning French here was also quickly squashed when I realized that 90% of the locals don’t even speak French, and the ones that do speak French that most French people would have difficulty understanding.

    So, Plan B is in full affect. I’m doing a 110KM ride tomorrow to Cotonou, Benin. Cotonou is a larger city that will have more folks speaking proper French, a decent wave with a local surfer Marc who may be able to help me start a club there, and it will be the official starting country of my Western Africa trip. Mamacita will be sending me an important package the a new Panasonic Hi-Def camcorder as I killed my other one in Zanzibar, as well as other important replacement equipment to gear up for the journey to Morocco. I plan to be on the road early to mid August to ride Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Gambia in a continuous expedition that should be a whopper.

    West Africa is so different than East Africa. Perhaps it’s more like East Africa was 10-20 years ago. The infrastructure is extremely limited, there are very few tourists and it appears to be as real an African experience as one can have in the few safe countries in this region.

    On the genuine note, I can honestly say I feel far more alone and freaked out here than in the East. At least in the East you could, if you wanted to, engage with other travelers at a backpackers or something. I felt just far enough away from western civilization, but close enough to be in my comfort zone. I can say now I’m out of my comfort zone, but luckily not by so much that I’m suffering. It’s just enough to keep constant butterflies in my tummy and I’m sure I’ll grow from the experience tremendously.

    Over and out from Aneho, Togo. Try to find this on the map, I dare ya. Try to find Togo! It’s tiny! This place is surreal, you’ll dig the photos and video no doubt!


    Jamie J

    Tuesday, July 03, 2007

    MY BIKE WAS STOLEN!!! July 3rd 2007 journal

    Okay, before we all freak out, this is an epic story of intention and determination. Check it out...

    It was as lovely Saturday night in Zanzibar. I had just finished recoding and filming 3 amazing artists at the ZIFF Music and Film Festival and was in great spirits. I was invited to catch the sunset at the epic Africa House Hotel. After a lovely meal and some drinks I proceeded to take some rest and prepare for a night on the town. I left my bike at the Africa House, which I was warned by the manager NOT to do, and went about my festive Saturday night. I figured they had 24 hour security and I left my guard down and just locked it with a basic alarm lock one uses for laptops and all. Bad move.

    After a fun night with friends I went back the next morning to get ready for another day of filming and the bike was gone. Yikes! Had I moved it in my party frenzy the night before? How could this happen?

    After the initial shock wore off, it was time to act—and act fast. My biggest worry was that it would be sent by boat to the mainland capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam. I had to make sure this did NOT happen. With the help of my Italian buddy Anna we stepped into immediate action. Anna went and rented us two bikes while I went to work on a flyer offering a 1 million shilling reward—about $800 dollars. This is a HUGE in Zanzibar and I knew this would get the buzz started.

    We printed out 200 copies of the flyer and went out on the town handing them out to shady characters and business leaders alike. We peppered the port areas to make sure the bike would not make it past anyone there. I made a police report, if you can call what I did a police report, but knew it was up to US to get the bike back. Many locals told me the police would be worthless and I had to find other ways. I agreed having been in Africa for so long and seen their work ethic and corruption tolerance.

    I was then led to the local TV station by a chef from the Africa house and they immediately went about putting me on the news and I even bought air time to show photos of the bike and the story of the Peace Pedalers with the reward offered! It was about 30 bucks for 6 spots of 30 seconds (not bad!).

    By early evening the entire island knew about this bike and the buzz was everywhere! The crazy thing was that both the security guard working AND the another night auditor BOTH said they saw me take the bike and unlock it at 10PM the night of the theft! Something was fishy! I would know if I took a priceless bike back to my hotel. I only had a few cocktails.

    After dinner, less than 24 hours of the theft, I got an anonymous call from a guy Adil who said he heard the bike showed up in a drug addict part of town last night at about midnight. Somebody had been trying to sell it for 20,000 shillings, or about 18 dollars. Nobody would buy it as it was too big and obvious it was stolen. The addict who stole it was at a loss and brought it back to his house. That was the story. That night we went to find a guy who knew the thief to take him to the police but he was a no show. My hopes were again shattered, but at least I knew the bike was on the island and everyone kept telling me “Hakuma Matada”—no worries!

    The next morning I got a call from Adil and he confirmed that the bike was found but the only way to get it was to come out and pick him and his buddies up. We went back to the shady part of town in a mini-van taxi and proceeded to pick up about 7 stinky, shady characters who wanted in on the reward. I used my intuition to guide me here as they said we had to go without the police if I wanted to get my bike back for sure. They, like most locals on the island, said the police were very corrupt and would likely make matters far worse.

    As we drove to a mysterious location the van reeked with body odor so foul I put my head out the window. Deep inside I knew it would all be good. Adil is a solid cat and the taxi driver very trusted. They all knew is was the process. We simply drove to the thief’s house and wheeled the bike out! I even met the guy! He apologized and said thank you for not bringing the police. I did not care, I just wanted my bike back and to get back to filming and enjoying the festival.

    Adil and I drove back and on the way back to told him I was not prepared to pay the full 1 million reward because I had to spend two days of my time and money out working WITH them to find the bike. They were happy with a 500,000 shilling reward, about 400 dollars. So, a very hard lesson learned but I did indeed get my bike back in just over 24 hours.

    All along I have to say I was not THAT worried. I knew it would show up either here on the island or in Dar. I was just more bummed that I had to spend all the time and money away from the festival for being careless and not taking the advice of the manager. But I’ve forgiven myself, the thief and the security guard and am moving on. But I have to admit, it has taken the wind out of my sails and it’s been a struggle to get excited to be here in Zanzibar. There is a air of corruption and deceit that one can feel here, and until now I was able to sort of ignore it. We’ll see how I do the rest of my stay here….

    Over and out from Zanzibar!