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A rather bleak country, but Morocco did have its dramatic moments.

#12 Looking Back at 2010:

Major Themes for the Year

 

"Don't Need To Do That Again"

We steadily added to our mental "Don't need to do that again" list during our first traveling months of 2010.  Morocco, without the bikes, was our first destination of the season and it was the first on 'the list' for the year. It was a fascinating trip and our biggest fret--being hassled by touts--didn't materialize. But overpriced and under-endowed, Morocco was worthy of a first visit but not a second for us. Like many places on 'the list,' I am very pleased to have had the experience of being there and treasure the memories, but I'll go other places for the first time before visiting Morocco again.

Long-put-off Portugal was our next major stop in 2010 and we won't be going there again anytime soon either.  Like Morocco, Portugal was a little short on dazzling experiences but it was the terror on the roads that will keep us away. It's a shame as we were collecting a short list of inexpensive places to linger next time but the lack of feeling safe in traffic, even on many of the back roads, drove us away. Like New Zealand and Spain, the scenery can be rewarding but it's hard to go far without being overwhelmed by dangerous truck traffic.

From the northern tip of Portugal at the Spanish border we made our way to Bolzano, Italy almost entirely by train over the course of 10 days in June. Traveling 1600 miles with our bikes on the trains necessitated planning each day's journey the night before and taking 2 to 3 trains per day for relatively short hops. The daily cycling we'd hoped to weave into the eastward traverse didn't materialize and most of our exercise was in the form of weight lifting as we hoisted our 200+ pounds of bikes and gear on and off trains and up and down stair wells, sometimes more than a dozen times a day. The endurance effort of the rush to make hiking season in the Dolomites from Portugal won't soon be forgotten and will temper brainstorming options that include "Let's take the train...." for long distances.


Can't beat the views from the Via Ferrata's.

2010 was a harsh weather year for many in Europe. For some, it meant droughts and forest fires; for others it was heavy rains and flooding. Though not especially happy about the weather we received, we considered ourselves lucky to be in the middle of the extremes as our year was defined unseasonably cool, wet weather where ever we were. We saw signs of flooding from the beginning of the year in Morocco to the end of it in Italy, but we were only incidentally affected by it. Unfortunately we can't assign the disappointing weather to 'the list' and have it change our future experiences. Instead, it really belongs in the "Oh, well...." column. 

 

"Ahhh...."

Much of our remaining traveling season was spent in the mountains or along the rivers of northern Italy and Austria.  Some of the individual hiking venues won't warrant repeating, but the strategy of visiting a mix of old and new hiking destinations was very satisfying.

For the last several years we've added a 1-2 months of summer hiking to our itinerary and it continues to be a delightful way to extend our stay in the mountains we love and to reliably avoid the summer heat waves. We also value the cross-training effect of hiking: the steep Alpine slopes give us the CV and leg strength workouts that we need to support our cycling but hiking provides a change of pace and the much needed bone strengthening that comes from pounding on our feet. Both Italy and Austria are predictably pleasing destinations for our summer "multi-sport" lifestyle (a label given to us this year by an Italian man).

 

Fancy Foot Work

We stumbled into barefoot hiking in 2009 and 2010 was the year for us to explore minimalist footwear to get us close to the barefoot experience without slowing us down so much. Our Vibram 5 Fingers started the year off with a few short outings in Morocco and then I wore mine to tatters while hiking in the Italian and Austrian Alps in the summer. Come late fall, we secured Invisible Shoe huaraches kits to make sandals that mostly saw city wear as our hiking season was long-gone. (More about the huaraches in "Minimalist Footwear II".


Our de-evolving wardrobe of minimalist Vibram footwear.

We both banged our toes; I tore fascia in the sole of one foot; Bill significantly aggravated his Achilles; and we gingerly walked in 1/4" Vibram sole material tied to our feet with cord as we did what we could to return our feet to their former, pre-shoe talents. In 2011 we'll test our bare-minimum huaraches as hiking shoes on the rocky Dolomite trails as well as put in more hours in new pairs of 5 Fingers.

 Both the intellectual and physical journeys of being less-well-shod have given us hours of fascinating exploration and entertainment and ranks as one of our accomplishments of this last decade of our lives.

 

The Rule of Law

It was several years ago that I read Alan Greenspan's book, Turbulent Times, a book in which "The Rule of Law" etched a space in my brain for itself. Curiously, it was in 2010 that it became one of the recurring themes of our year. 

"The Rule of Law" was one of those invisible givens in my life experience but Greenspan identified it as an essential first step in building a successful economy.  The nightly news (when we saw it) hammered the point as the lack of consistency in the Rule of Law in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq was clearly hampering their economic development. A school for girls or a new marketplace would be built and immediately would be reduced to rubble by the opposition that had a vested interest in undermining the Rule of Law.

We were in Portugal this year when the Greek financial crisis aired that country's dirty laundry for all to see. Despite Greece's best efforts as presenting itself as though the Rule of Law prevailed, being on the verge of insolvency revealed how their lack of it had substantially contributed to the crisis. Greece's failings were primarily in the form of white-collar lawlessness, as in extensive corruption and institutionalized tax evasion, rather than in the outright destruction of property and murder.

Reading and hearing the extent to which Greece's economic transactions occurred off the books, thereby denying the government of desperately needed tax revenue, was in glaring contrast to what we were experiencing in Portugal at the same time. I'd previously noted that the Portuguese retailers seemed to have an obsessive-compulsive disorder when it came to receipts as even transactions under 50 always resulted in a receipt being handed to me, not just tossed down on the counter as a 'take it or leave it' thing as is usually the case.


A religious symbol in Europe but to us
 it represents a usurping of the Rule of Law.

After seeing interviews about Greeks being quoted one price for a product or service with a receipt and a lower price without, I finally understood what was going on in Portugal.

I had grown up thinking receipts were for the consumer, that they were proof of purchase in case of making a return or being questioned about shoplifting. That's why I thought it a little crazy to personally hand me a receipt for a small loaf of bread purchased in a tiny shop: I wouldn't be returning it nor was there any confusion about the payment being made. But I was naive: in making the consistent receipt gesture the Portuguese were demonstrating their commitment an aspect of the Rule of Law with which the Greeks had yet to come to terms; the Portuguese were fully participating in funding their government through the collection of taxes and creating a paper trail.  

A couple of months later when in Italy I was again chuckling at the seeming silliness of an official sign listing the date and number of a legal ruling that authorized the posting of the relevant "Don't do......" sign as it seemed like such over-kill. But thinking back to Greece and Portugal, I had a new respect for the Rule of Law it represented. I had no need to be reassured that the "Don't litter/loiter/post/park/etc" was legit but after having recently been in some villages that appeared to be 'owned' by a single extended family, I had a new appreciation for the value of transparency, for the importance of accountability.

At the time, we were in the mountains of Italy and it was easy to image that the legal system had been more 'tribal' in some areas, even into the 20th century. In one village we had stayed at a family owned and operated hotel and realized that the only market in town was through the backdoor of the hotel and was operated by the same family. The family name showed up on another business in town as well.  Clearly this family had a lot of power over both price and access to food in that village and perhaps other goods and services.  No doubt the owner of the smaller hotel in town and other businesses would be operating on a more even playing field if parking and other restrictions were authorized by the regional government and not just the majority owner in the village--the competing hotel. Of course, the Rule of Law isn't immune to abuse, but it is a starting point for which I had a new appreciation.  

In November we caught a BBC story regarding the recent decrease in 'transparency' in 2 of the 16 members of the Euro zone, in Italy and Greece. The enforcement of the Rule of Law was being increasingly eroded by corruption in these 2 countries, which was both disappointing and shocking. They are moving backwards when all the structure and support from the EU should be improving their transparency. We've long assumed that part of the reason that prices, especially for lodging, pop-up when we enter Italy is due to the lack of Rule of Law, ie the Mafia. We presume that their corruption drives up the cost of utilities, infrastructure, and taxes, increasing the costs to residents and visitors alike. Too bad that the Mafia seems to be winning at the expense of the people.

Our exposure to the Rule of Law this year is one sobering example among many of how our travels have enhanced our deeper understanding of both the workings of our country and the rest of the world. Usually however we don't have the benefit of a concisely coined phrase to summarize the volumes we've internalized. 

 

Tipping Point

Sodium

"Tipping point" was the phrase my new acupuncturist used last January when discussing my ailments.  Her good work and the phrase both stayed with me through the year and "tipping point" popped into my mind in early November when we confronted the challenges of dramatically increasing our potassium intake. 

For more than 2 decades I have drawn upon the framework created by an excellent college nutrition class to be extremely aggressive about crafting a healthy diet for us. It began with abandoning red meat, then it was slashing saturated fats, and then almost all fats. Later olive oil was embraced and our fat intake found a more sensible equilibrium as our produce intake doubled from the RDA of 4-5 servings to 8-10 servings per day.  Refined sugar, alcohol, and caffeine slowly slipped into the background and we wore the derisive label from our families as "the nuts & berries relatives" with pride.

Our diet is always in a slow state of flux as we modify it to reflect new recommendations and our own knowing of our body's needs. When at home last winter, we gradually began reducing our salt intake. And as our diet changed through the year with changing availability of our stables, we kept the downward pressure on the sodium. In late August when I read the recommendation of 1.5 grams of sodium per day was now for everyone, not just a target group, we dutifully slashed our sodium intake to that level the next day.

We were horrified by what was required to meet the new recommendation, and especially with realizing that our simple lunchtime entree of bread and tuna consumed almost all of our 1.5 g sodium allotment.  That was the end of bread on our traveling menu and subsequently each morning we soaked and rinsed canned beans, and sometimes tuna, to rein-in our sodium consumption. Avoiding bread products during a non-biking spring hiking trip to South American that Bill was planning was one hurdle too many and he switched to planning an RV trip to the southwest US instead.

Our heads were spinning in disbelief that we should whack our sodium intake so severely as we commonly were in the 2.0-2.5 gram range, but we obediently complied. It was challenging given the scant nutritional labeling required in Europe but the acid test of our success was rendering Bill 'hyponatremic,' or making him ill from a lack of sodium, about once a month. 


This pile of food delivers about 10 grams (2 tsp
 of potassium): enough for 2 people for 1 day.

Potassium

Still in disbelief but in compliance with the 1.5 grams of sodium target, I then read at the end of October that we should be eating at least 4.7 grams of potassium each day to fend-off strokes, hypertension, osteoporosis, and kidney stones. That was the tipping point.

Visualizing sticking to our low sodium diet when dining with friends while at home this winter had us feeling like social outcasts before we got there but the high potassium piece was the last straw: we were no longer cooking and dining, we were manipulating elements in a chemistry lab--we felt like lab rats eating measured amounts of solubilized stones.

My daily shopping became a process of collecting "potassium bits" as Bill called them. But astonishingly, those "bits" were pounds. After shopping with grams of potassium as my priority for several days, I shifted the math from counting milligrams of potassium to adding up other numbers.

In rough terms, collecting about 5 grams of potassium (approximately a teaspoonful) per person meant hauling 10 pounds of produce out of the market every day for the 2 of us. That amounted to about 1,000 calories of our estimated daily need of around 2,500-2,800 calories each.  In very average numbers, that was about $5 per day per person just to collect 5 grams of potassium. All the more shocking is that potassium chloride, or potash, is a very cheap form of fertilizer.  On weekends when the stores are closed on Sunday, that number doubles to 20 pounds to be hauled with us on  our bikes, which really made us wish we could buy pure potassium chloride in a bottle (we tried but failed).

I found myself panicking in the supermarket the first week: I had established a general daily menu using seasonal produce to meet our latest requirement but almost all of the produce was pre-packed in less-than-a-kilogram bundles and my target numbers all pivoted around 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs)  units. "Arrggh, we'll come up short!" was my lament as I scrambled to assemble some "filler" potassium bits on the fly.

Achieving these new nutrition targets of course had to be segued around our other needs for eating the right mix of total calories and taking into account our reliance on a diet high in complex carbohydrates. I laughed for months after we slashed our sodium intake as cookies, which had essentially been banished from our diet for decades, reappeared on the menu. Cutting the sodium took with it our ready sources of carbohydrate snacks when we ran calorie short on the road, foods like bread and canned garbanzo beans. We discovered that cookies (and many bakery products) are low in sodium and so a granola bar like cookie offered by one supermarket chain became our emergency food--we traded-off increasing our refined sugar intake for decreasing our sodium for the time being.  


Fortunately, evolutionary justifications with
Bill don't have to go this far back.

An Evolutionary  Perspective 

As usual with these changes, Bill played devil's advocate by pressing me to justify the new feeding regime. Slashing the sodium was a huge loss for him, though increasing the produce intake for the potassium wasn't painful. But the volume of food the potassium targets required provoked the inevitable question from him: "Can this really be right?"

Nothing sways him like an evolutionary perspective, which fortunately I stumbled upon when online. Convincingly, one source commented that the current Western diet has about 3 times the sodium of our ancestral/prehistoric diet but only 1/7th the potassium of that same early diet. Juxtaposing those numbers with the current estimate that 70-80% of the US population has hypertension or pre-hypertension made it sufficiently compelling for him to begin chomping on another pound of produce.

From Tipping Point to Tipping Over

We'd grieved the loss of bread from our basically very healthy diet; made peace with the pile of produce we needed to buy, haul, and eat each day to meet the potassium requirements; perfected our lab rat imitations which involved wrinkling our noses and simulating whiskers with wriggling fingers; and then we got sick. I was increasingly having wobbly episodes when I tilted my head, as when washing my laundry in a sink or coming to a stop on the bike, and Bill was often saying "I don't feel well."


Feeling tipsy from sodium depletion is a looser for our lifestyle.

We presumed we'd dropped our sodium levels too low, but it didn't make sense. Our symptoms weren't matching those of our prior experiences with hyponatremia over 10 years ago and online searching didn't support the hyponatremia diagnosis for our level of sodium intake. I knew there was a chance that we were running our intake on the low side of the recommended 1.5grams but we'd also read that the rock-bottom low intake level was 0.5 grams and we were well above that. And even though we were exercising, we were out in wintery weather so we shouldn't have had a lot of salt loss in our sweat. 

The numbers on our sodium intake were rough at best as few food products in Europe disclose the sodium content, but I'd used online resources to make educated estimates and e-mailed several manufacturers for sodium content information. But our increasing unsteadiness was compelling and we started pouring the sodium back into our diets. I added 5 grams over as many days, which cleared my head enough to be convinced that hyponatremia--low sodium--was indeed the problem. But surprisingly, it wasn't an easy fix. We didn't want to overload with sodium, so it took me more than 2 weeks of elevated intake to stabilize and restore my sense of wellbeing. And then in less than a week later, we were both literally stopped in our tracks and reeling from our tipsy-feeling heads again.

We were stunned: we were trying to do the right thing for our health by reducing our sodium intake and yet we were on the verge of killing ourselves from our unsteady feelings, especially when in traffic. It seemed that it was going to take weeks to fill the sodium deficits we'd created and then to re-equilibrate so that we weren't always on the verge of dizziness. Our best guess at the moment is that our base diet before the sodium austerity plan was implemented was about right, that we both need at least 2 grams of sodium a day to have any resilience in the face of normal diet and exertion fluctuations. The next challenge would be establishing a refined diet that didn't run us so close to the hyponatremia tipping point and literally tipping over.

 

Looking Ahead

Fiddling with our sodium intakes degraded our health and comfort for several months this fall but a larger theme for 2010 was an overall increase in sense of wellbeing for both of us. Unlikely combinations of medications, withdrawing medications, juggling nutritional supplements, acupuncture, and other alternative therapies have us both ending 2010 with bigger smiles on our faces than we began the year with. In fact, my comfort level is the best it's been 6 years and Bill measures his as being the best it's been since he was a teenager. We are both excited by looking towards our 2nd decade of travel, the 6th decade of our lives, from a more vital place than we have for years.


At least these stowaways didn't cause us any trouble.

Our 2011 touring season will begin with 2 months of traveling in a rented RV in the US southwest. In mid-February we'll pick up the vehicle in Las Vegas and drive south from there, looking for good weather and good hiking venues. After a brief stay back home to change-out our gear, we'll return to Europe in early May and pick-up our bikes in Vienna. Bill is still crafting an itinerary, but it will again include a long summer hiking season in the Dolomites and perhaps fall hiking around Lake Garda in northern Italy. Remember, the portable welcome mat is always out if you'd like to come travel with us or meet us for tea along the way.

The next item in your mail box from us will be an announcement that our look back at the last 10 years is available.

PS

Our departure from Europe was exceptionally rocky this year. We were pulled into the back room by the Dutch immigration authorities at the airport for being in violation of a virtual visa and then our flight was cancelled after sitting on the tarmac for 5 hours. We made it back home the next day on a flight that was delayed by a little more than an hour. Unfortunately our punishment for violating the visa didn't resolve as quickly.  The matter is in limbo, perhaps for months, as our file is being sent to Spain where they may ban us from entering Europe for 5 years or tear up the report. A complicating factor is that we have our expensive bikes in storage in Vienna. We've already crafted scenarios for the various outcomes, but what a way to end a year!

 

Our best to all of you,

Barb & Bill

 

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