#38 (Almaty, Kazakhstan - Too Ashuu, Kyrgyzstan)

Dead birds in the gutter. Fistfights in the street. Dust in the air and diesel exhaust in our lungs and white-hot lightning bolts forking down from dark grey stormclouds above. Our departure from Almaty—from our plush hotel room overlooking the park to this—has been an afternoon of the starkest contrasts.

It gets better. We escape Almaty's urban buffer and we enter the steppe. The traffic goes from horrendous to congested to actually quite manageable; the landscape from industrial wasteland to decent to rather pretty rolling hills. We can breathe again.

#37 (Istanbul, Turkey - Almaty, Kazakhstan)

Cardboard. Scissors. Foam. Lots and lots of packing tape. Nuts and bolts and grease and grime. Papercuts and dirty fingernails. Two boxes. Two bicycles. One taxi. Several bridges and one long highway. One big airport with two security checkpoints. Two passengers, two tickets. One plane. Final-calls and jet engines and seats in the upright position. Eyes out the window. Minarets in the distance, minarets getting smaller, minarets disappearing beneath the clouds. Ten thousand feet. Twenty thousand feet. Thirty thousand feet.

I rub my tired, bleary eyes and peer out the window into the waking dawn. Kazakhstan.

#36 (Zheger, Kosovo - Istanbul, Turkey)

We don't even want to go to Serbia. But here we are, enveloped by a dozen friendly Kosovars, deciding if the border officials over in Serbia will be kind enough to let us in.

We want to go to Macedonia. That is the plan. But this border, the one to Macedonia, the one right over this hill, is closed. The next best option, the way in via Serbia, is not closed. But it's closed to us because we entered Kosovo via Albania, and not via Serbia like the Serbian government insists. We are stuck in the thick agar of bureaucratic purgatory.

It is dark, and thus one thing is certain. Even if we can find a way out of eastern Kosovo, it will not be tonight.

#35 (Kotor, Montenegro - Zheger, Kosovo)

Nine months. The last time we'd seen Lauren's parents was nine months ago—ten, almost—at the departures terminal of LAX. After a tearful goodbye those last days of June, we'd taken a flight back to Washington, said our farewells to some more loved ones, and packed a few final things. And then we'd flown to Africa.

Summer became autumn and autumn became winter. Winter became spring. We kept in touch, of course. Traveling the world right now, in 2018, is in most ways easier than ever before. For all the ills of modern technology, it can do some incredible things. Phone calls, in real time, from a remote tent in the Tanzanian plains to Bob and V in the outskirts of Los Angeles. Video calls from a roadside wifi spot. Communication, cheaply and easily and rather intimately.

But pixels can only go so far. Nine months is a long time. And so weeks ago, back in Muggia actually, Lauren's parents had agreed to join us in Montenegro at the end of April. And now it is the end of April. And now they're here, looking lovely and three-dimensional and with far fewer beige pixelated boxes affixed to their faces than WhatsApp's low-res videochat display would have us believe.

#34 (Split, Croatia - Kotor, Montenegro)

We have found ourselves a home for the next two weeks. A place of our very own, with a balcony and seaside views, in the little Croatian town of Makarska. We can be there in a day, but the place isn't available until the first of April. Four days from now.

And so we bike to the beach. We stock up on four days of food. I fill the jugs strapped to my fork with thirteen liters of water and we carry another ten liters in various bags and bottles attached to our frames and racks. We pedal up a great big hill and come to the secluded spot we'd found on Google's satellite maps a few days earlier.

Our secluded spot is way, way down below.

#33 (Muggia, Italy - Split, Croatia)

Snow. Lots of it. Everywhere. It is twilight and we are many hundred meters above sea level and the ground all around us is blanketed in a thick wet mass of ice and slush and powder. It is dark and we are cold.

We want to camp but there is nowhere to camp. Nowhere suitable for a picky pair of campers like us, anyway. I suppose we can camp in the snow. I suppose that's something people do. But our tent is thin and technically sold as a "three-season" tent. Nowhere does it list which three seasons it covers, but my money's on all the ones that aren't winter. Because of the snow. Because camping in the snow is nowhere near as fun and enjoyable and comfortable as camping in the not-snow.

#32 (Ventimiglia, Italy - Muggia, Italy)

It is colder in Europe than it is at the north pole.

Literally. The temperature at the north pole is above freezing, maybe one or two degrees Centigrade. Which is a little terrifying, because there's a lot of ice up there that's supposed to remain frozen.

Meanwhile, it is well below freezing here in Europe. Some parts of northern Europe are below forty (Celsius, Fahrenheit, doesn't matter; minus forty is minus forty either way). It's not that extreme down in Italy, but it's still pretty damn cold.

#31 (Le Pennes-Mirabou, France - Ventimiglia, Italy)

So, Lauren's in the hospital.

It's a big, imposing hospital in the center of Marseille. This is, apparently, the only place certain to have the heavy-duty machinery required to drill through the blockages of hardened wax that have lodged themselves in each of her ear canals. Lauren has spent the past several days stoically managing the discomfort and difficulty hearing, and today is the day she gets her sense of sound back.

I, meanwhile, am playing the role of concerned and attentive partner quite well. I am several kilometers away on the Marseille waterfront rifling through items in the first Patagonia shop I've seen since leaving DC. I am like a kid in a candy store, oohing at the new line of backpacks and aahing at the latest edition of full-zip jackets.

#30 (Montpellier, France - Les-Pennes-Mirabou)

Lauren's ears are blocked. Severely so. You might say deafeningly so. Lauren's in pain, and she can't really hear, and not being able to hear on a bicycle isn't just unenjoyable, but dangerous.

We stop in Arles, a sizable town on France's Mediterranean coast, and visit an emergency health clinic. We wait for an hour, maybe more, and the doctor calls Lauren into his office. There is an attempt at removal, but it's a failed attempt. He simply doesn't have the tools to handle an ear blockage of this magnitude. This is a big-city sort of job.

#29 (Barcelona, Spain - Montpellier, France)

We pedal through Catalonia and it is awash in yellow ribbons. Small streamers tied to mailboxes an multi-story tapestries billowing off the side of buildings. Free our political prisoners.  In America citizens call for their politicians to be locked up. Here they hang yellow to bring their parliament home.

Because the parliament is, indeed, in exile. Those that weren't arrested and imprisoned for organizing a peaceful referendum fled to Belgium, and will surely be thrown in jail if they return. This isn't a fringe affair in Catalonia; this is the story. We pass through towns with the faces of the jailed painted on walls. Enormous ¡Si! flags (yes, for independence) hang from balconies. These people don't have a parliament. It's been stolen from them.  We find ourselves in the Occupied State of Catalonia, and it's a very strange place to be.

#28 (Valencia, Spain - Barcelona, Spain)

Instagram isn't good for very much. By and large it's a smarmy mosh pit of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, and on its best days it's still not a very good use of time. But occasionally a little good can from it.

Yesterday I posted a photo of Lauren and our bikes in Valencia's main park. Someone following me on Instagram sent a message. You guys are in Valencia? I'm just a little ways up the coast. Will you be passing by?

#27 (Arquillos, Spain - Valencia, Spain)

It is snowing. But not the good, pretty kind.

We are soaked to the bone. We are trembling. We cannot feel our fingers.  

Lauren's tire is flat. Her wheel is not turning. Between the problem of the snow and the problem of the numb fingers, we cannot fix it. 

We are on an empty mountain road. It will be dark in a few hours. And then temperatures, already freezing, will plummet. 

We have tried to bail out. We have thrown in the towel. Bus, train, anything. But no one is picking up our towel. It is a holiday. The third in three weeks. We got lucky for the first two. Christmas. New Year's. It seems our luck has run out. It is Three Kings' Day, and we are all alone.  

#26 (Jaén, Spain - Arquillos, Spain)

We leave olive country. We ride through a strange, bald landscape of rolling hills and few trees. We use Google Maps for our route planning today, which is always something of a gamble. It takes us across goat trails and private access roads and train tracks and dead ends. It is unpredictable yet fun.

Ordinarily we wouldn't have time for Google Maps and its unreliable detours. But we don't have very far to go today. Just forty or fifty kilometers to Linares.

#24 (Algeciras, Spain - Campillos, Spain)

Lauren is asking a pair of police officers nearby if they know of any cheap hostels when Pablo approaches me. Our bikes and deer-in-headlights gaze have given away that we are not from here. Pablo asks where we're from. Are we lost?

A little. I tell him our sob story: from America, long bike trip, just arrived, looking for somewhere to camp, having great difficulty. He's friendly but doesn't know of any spots in the city. He hasn't lived here for a while. He's from Algeciras, and his whole family is still here, but he works up in Belgium. He's home for the holidays.

Let me go ask my brother, he says. In the meantime, come join the party. Can I get you some hot cocoa? Pastries? Here, take these.

#23 (Ceuta, Spain - Algeciras, Spain)

We have been in Spain about ten seconds.

And I am being run over. Intentionally. In slow motion.

I am banging on his hood, his windshield, his mirror. Lauren is screaming for him to please stop from across the street. I am shouting, too. I am shouting and flailing my right arm and smacking his car with my left one and also trying to heave my heavy loaded bicycle from between these two vehicles, partially submerged beneath one of them. All the while, he watches me blankly.

#22 (Douar Sidi Mohamed Chelh, Morocco - Ceuta, Spain)

You watch the news and you read the papers and you're led to believe that the world is a big, scary place. People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil. People are axe murderers and monsters and worse.

I don't buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we've invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own—it's easier to dismiss an opinion as abhorrent than strive to understand it. Badness exists, sure, but even that's quite rare. By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind. No greater revelation has come from our journey than this.

#20 (Cairo, Egypt - Tiflet, Morocco)

Of all the gin joints in all the world, we find ourselves here. Casablanca.

Approximately. We're not really in Casablanca, but the Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport, which is about thirty kilometers south and east from Casablanca proper in a dusty little place called Nouaceur.

We won't be going to Casablanca. For all its Humphrey Bogart-inspired old-timey allure, modern Casablanca is roundly summarized as an expensive, gritty, industrial port town with little in the way of pleasant ambience or Moroccan culture. There are nicer gin joints to be found.