Curse of Ali Shazam: Cycling Misadventures Latvia
Do you know that feeling when strange things happen while travelling? Things that don’t seem to happen to ‘normal’ people. When one thing after another went wrong while cycling in Latvia, I became convinced there was some supernatural force at work. In the shape of a toy wizard we had foolishly strapped to the handlebars. Was he responsible for our cycling misadventures?
The wonderful wizard?
“What are you doing with Ali Kazam?” asked Matthew catching me fiddling around with his purple cloaked wizard and a velcro tie wrap.
“It’s Ali Shazam” I replied, velcroing the wizard’s leg onto Hannah’s handlebars, “I thought he’d be fun for Hannah to play with.”
“Good idea Dad. But it’s Ali Kazam not Shazam”
We’ve argued about this since Matthew won him from a real life midget magician on the Esbjerg ferry. Each year I try to limit the size of the travelling toy box while the kids become more skillful at finding, making or winning things to entertain themselves on the road. At least Ali is small and light, unlike Matthew’s stone collection and the assortment of sticks waiting to be carved into wands.
Installed on Hannah’s handlebars Ali Shazam looked great, a magical mascot for a magical riding machine. And although the fastening meant he refused to sit upright, preferring to flop forwards, backwards or to the side, I figured it made him more entertaining for Hannah; the boys said it looked like he was casting spells.
And then something snapped
It was a long ride to Kurdiga; 60 to 70km across inland Kurzeme, on bumpy main road through the endless forest that covers 40% of Latvia. It’s not the most interesting riding and Ali played nicely with Hannah. Then, at 3 in the afternoon with 30km to go I noticed the lead trailer flopping around like Ali. An emergency inspection revealed Ali Shazam hanging upside down and one of the main frame struts frame sheared in two. The front end of the trailer had dropped to the ground leaving the connecting arm waving around like a wand. It was a sorry sight and looked impossible to fix, even with velcro tie-wraps. Was this the work of Shazam?
Make do and mend
When it comes to carrying tools and spares I’m like the kids and their toys; I carry as much as I can get away with. But there was nothing in my kit to deal with this; it looked like a job for aluminium welding gear. So it was going to have to be a roadside botch. I gave the kids a quick lesson in splinting and sent them scouring for materials we might use to splint the frame together. Ten minutes later, with me still scratching my head wondering what I could cannibalise to effect a repair, they returned with plastic bottles, tin cans, rusty nails and pieces of wood. Hannah trailed behind wielding a long ‘magic stick’ she had appropriated from a Viking centre in Denmark.
It took thirty minutes of bending, sawing and fiddling to lash the frame back together using an aluminium bottle carrier off one of the bikes, some pieces of scrap wood, all our remaining tie-wraps and half Hannah’s magic stick. By the time I’d switched the connecting arm to the other side of the trailer and removed as much weight as possible from the trailer, I felt we had a good chance of getting to a bike shop in Kurdiga to effect a better repair. So we sat Ali Shazam up once more and set off for Kurdiga.
Looking for help in Kurdiga
Kurdgia was a rarity amongst the Latvian towns we had passed through so far. Not only did it have a pleasant main street, it also had a hotel and two bike shops. The woman in the first small shop showed no interest in us or our problem. She spoke no English and did not understand our limited Latvian. After exchanging stares for a few moments she disappeared into the back room and did not return. The man in the second was more helpful. He looked at the lashed up frame, smiled, shrugged his shoulders and disappeared back into his shop, coming back moments later with two long tie wraps and gesturing us to go visit a garage up the road.
A botch one better
The mechanics at the garage held an initial conference around the trailer and then decided their real work was more important, leaving a small, moustached receptionist with us. After a couple more minutes of inspection he too disappeared into the workshop leaving us wondering if we should stay or go. We loitered with intent and eventually the moustache returned, first with some tie wraps, then with a small length of pipe and finally with a couple of large hose clips and a screwdriver. He cut off all our tie wraps, removed the bottle cage splinting the break, replaced it with a steel pipe and then tie wrapped and hose clipped the whole thing back together in a simple Latvian modification to my roadside fix. I offered him some cash for his time and effort which was politely refused, but the mimed offer of a crate of Kelta beer made his moustache twitch in a way I knew meant it would be accepted.
Towards a famous vinyard
After all the faffing, it was after 1pm before we left Kurdiga with Ali sitting up once more. Looking for something to lift our spirits, we were in a rush to try and reach Sabile, the world’s most Northerly open-air vinyard, in time for the end of their annual wine festival, the only time it’s possible to sample the local wine. On the way out of Kurdiga Ali Shazam fell off Hannah’s handlebars as she played with him so I secured him to the front bars instead. He flopped upside down from the bars, trailing in the wind, his purple cloak hanging down over his moustache. Riding across Kurzeme you get to stretch your muscles on the small hills that lead back towards the Baltic Sea near Riga. We were making good progress until 30km from Sabile at 3 in the afternoon, my pedals started spinning so fast I thought Cameron had actually started powering.
“DAD. STOP,” came the shout from behind. “Your chain’s fallen off.”
The front drive train on the triplet had sheared under the strain of pulling Cameron, Hannah and the trailer uphill. Kirstie looked worried. She always does when there are chain problems, ever since the time we were touring in deepest Patagonia when her chain broke, then the chain tool broke and we thought we’d have to walk for 3 days to the nearest bike shop. That situation took 24 hours to resolve and involved Kirstie flagging down the next passing cyclist in her bra and knickers.
Although I remain nervous about chain tools, I felt prepared for this job. Until I discovered the triplet uses a different kind of chain to that in my spares kit. Ten minutes became thirty as I got hands, arms and clothes oily and I turned the air as blue as Ali Shazam’s sparkly pants, hanging above me while I sweated out a way to jam the chain back together. It was still possible to ride the bike without the front chain but then only the stokers could power and there was no way Hannah and Cameron could power us 30km to Sabile fully loaded. And there was no way we could switch load to the other trailer due to its infirmity. I eventually managed to jam a few links of old chain found rusting in the bottom of my toolkit into the broken chain in a way which looked like it might hold. And Kirstie was able to keep her clothes on. Ali Shazam’s moustache twitched in the wind as I sat him upright again and we pedalled on.
Too many monkey faces
“There are too many monkey faces in this town,” warned a tall, muscly man as he counselled us to leave Sabile shortly after we arrived.
At first I thought he was talking about the kids messing about on the back of the bikes, as they always do when I would most like them to behave.
“I have not drunk in 17 years,” he continued proudly, combing back his greased hair and gently steering us towards the edge of town, “but I cannot say the same for others.”
The wine festival had just finished and the town did seem to have more than its fair share of winos on the streets. In some Latvian towns the tourist information office swore we would find no other accommodation in the whole of Latvia in order to get us to stay. In Sabile, the office was closed and everyone seemed keen to get us to leave. A teacher at the local school joined our teetotal guide in showing us the way out of town, recommending we cycle another 10km out of town and stay at a guest-house and restaurant by the river.
“There is nothing here,” concluded our strong-armed guide gloomily as we neared the edge of town, “I have not worked for two years. I cannot always afford to eat. But you will get something down the road.”
Hand over the money
“The guy hasn’t eaten for a while, can you give him a little dosh?” I whispered to Kirstie as we reached the edge of town, meaning she should put a little dosh his way.
After a moments rummaging in the picnic bag she thrust a packet of melted chocolate biscuits towards him. He looked as confused as me and Ali Shazam by this turn of events but Kirstie insisted, thrusting the biscuits repeatedly at him until the gift was accepted. As we parted company, packet of battered chocolate biscuits firmly in one huge weather-beaten palm, he used the other to squeeze the life out of us with a farewell handshake.
“What were you doing?” I asked Kirstie as we rode off out of earshot. “I said to give him some dosh.”
“Oh, I thought you said nosh.”
We pedalled ever-on towards the coast, Ali waving his magic wand in the breeze, praying that this time his magic would bring a comfortable bed for the night and not further misadventure.