Reflections on Traveling

August 28, 2017

Traveling has a long term, if not permanent, effect on your life. Your views of the world and its’ people change; your views of yourself and those around you change; your focus on what is important and what is less important change. I recently re-encountered a quote attributed to Mark Twain that brought back to mind many of my encounters along my route across four continents:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

I’ve been back in the States for just over a year now. The urge to travel is still strong, and my long-range plan is built completely around getting back on the road. And I am making strong headway in that direction.

After spending most of a year in Central America, South America, and Africa, perhaps one of the strongest images I acquired was seeing how people with virtually nothing lived happily. Many of these people lived in small, one-room huts or shacks, without running water or electricity. Their jobs were not attached to some Fortune 500 company, but rather in day-to-day living, whether farming, taking what they grew to market, finding food and water, or otherwise providing for their families. These people in general were happier than any that I met in cities. They had less stress, no imagined timetable, no made-up cultural rules or dress code. No outside media screaming stories of inflated importance at them 24/7 that had no actual impact on their immediate lives.

A simple life.

I simplified my life in many ways before leaving on my trip. I sold much of what I owned, including a house, car, and other belongings I had acquired over years that I attached false importance to. I eliminated bills, payments, unnecessary mail and emails. Six months into my ride, I had settled into a very relaxed existence, living mostly in a tent with enough bedding, clothes and cooking supplies to be comfortable, and a means of transportation that could take me to the next village or country. Even though everything I had with me fit on a motorcycle, I still had a lot more material goods than most of the people I met along the way.

It was around Central America that I began to understand that you can be happy with very little, and make more of what you have. I noticed that people who lived in a very small home with a large family made good use of outdoor space. They lived outdoors, often cooked outdoors, worked outdoors, and only slept or sometimes ate inside the house. I made a note to myself for my return: Outdoor space is cheap. Live more simply. Stay downsized. Don’t let the “stuff” take over your life again.

Africa again reminded me of this. Simple houses. Outdoor living. Hard working, yes. But happy people.

When I returned last year, I had a firm goal: build a small(er) house as a base to return to while traveling; a place to re-charge every now and then, or to plan the next stage of travel. Continue to live a simple life. Continue to spend less and save more in order to get back on the road sooner.

In the past, while living in the US, when I would stop to buy gas for my car or truck I would inevitably walk into the convenience store and buy a candy bar and a soda. For no reason. Just because it was there. I learned that in other less-developed countries, gas stations are just that. There is no store attached to it. You buy gas. Period. This was a great way to eat better, and save money. And “fix” one of my bad habits.

In the past, I would eat out many times a week, often at rather expensive restaurants, but even fast food drained my budget. I would buy concert tickets, or tickets to a play on a whim, just because it sounded interesting. Now, I stay focused on the long-term goal of traveling full time. (Note that I, like many others, used to refer to this as “my dream”. I no longer do that, because I have proven to myself that it is fully achievable.)

You might think I am living a boring life, or “wasting” the present because I’m not enjoying myself. You’d be wrong. It’s amazing how many free things there are to do if you just look around. Free concerts. Free movies. Free food events. Free sporting events. I’m still enjoying life, maybe even more, because I’m around people who don’t judge others by how much they spend.

A year into non-traveling, my house is almost finished. Soon I will be saving more money, happily working toward my return to the road. Still living a much simpler life than I had before. Still focused on what is important to me, and not the material “stuff” that weighs us down. Happier. Less stressed. Okay, more stressed than when everything you own is on a 250cc motorcycle and you’re living in a tent in Namibia. But much less stressed than I used to be.

Another quote that I’ve seen often is attributed to St. Augustine: “The world is a book, and those that don’t travel read only one page.”

I truly believe that travel can and will change a person’s view of the world and other cultures. I am living proof. And I can’t wait to get back out there and experience more of the world.

My World is Definitely Shrinking: My Texas – Africa Connection

April 2, 2017

Hard to believe it was eleven months ago that I was in Tanzania, on my way to Ngorongoro Crater, a highlight of my travels. Since the National Parks in Tanzania wisely do not allow motorcyclists to ride through the parks — because I look like a large hors d’oeuvre to the wildlife (“tastes like chicken”) — I needed to find a place to leave the bike and my gear while catching a safari tour to the crater.

A popular camping spot for the safari trucks that come from further away is a place called Snake Park, just west of Arusha. Perhaps a poor choice of name for people who desire to sleep on the ground. Nonetheless I rode to Snake Park, and made a loop through the campground. There were a couple of safari trucks there, and a large lawn for pitching the many tents that safari-goers sleep in. Aside from that, there wasn’t much for amenities, and very little shade.

Okay, I find myself laughing, and mocking myself at the mention of “amenities” in Africa. There is a large chasm between the ultra-expensive safari lodges, and the places that I camp; many lodges in Africa can easily run $300 to $600US per night. That is obviously not in my budget. I generally paid around $8 a night to camp, or as much as $15 a night for a room.

Not far before I arrived at Snake Park, I passed a place on the opposite side of the road called Meserani Oasis. It was the only place for many miles that had a lot of trees, and it sat behind a walled compound. So I decided to head back a few miles and see what was behind the wall.

When I pulled up to the gate, a gentleman opened the gate and welcomed me in. I rode in and parked the bike, and was met by a mzungu (white guy) who was clearly American. It felt strange to speak to another American after so long. He told me that his mother-in-law owned the lodge, and he and his wife had moved back to Tanzania to be with Mama. I soon met Mama, a lovely woman who spoke perfect english and went out of her way to make me comfortable, even though I was the only guest at that time. Yes, she had campsites under the trees, but for just a few dollars more I could have a private room with a shared bath (and no one to share it with). So I took a room for several nights and inquired about a tour to Ngorongoro. Mama made a few phone calls and was able to book me into a safari tour that would pass by Meserani in the morning and pick me up.

Meserani is a full lodge, with a restaurant and bar, and although I was the only guest, they still cooked dinner for me each night I was there, and breakfast in the morning. I sat in the restaurant at dinner time, and spoke with Mama while she watched television. It was amusing to me that she was watching “Cops” each night…I squirmed a bit thinking that her view of Americans was from a show about redneck trailer trash criminals.

That’s when I learned that Mama had a much more complete view of my country (as did many people I met in Africa). She had another daughter who lived in the United States, and she had traveled to the U.S. to visit her.

“Where?”, I asked.

“Texas”, she replied.

“Really!? Where in Texas?”

“Near Austin.” I was nearly speechless.

“Where near Austin?”

“A small town outside of Austin.”

This was getting weird. Here I was on the opposite side of the world, in the opposite hemisphere, having dinner with a total stranger, who had a daughter living very near me. It turns out her daughter lived about 15 miles from where I was living before I left on my trip.

Before I left Meserani Oasis to head for Nairobi, I asked Mama for contact information for her daughter. She gave me a phone number, and I tucked it into my tank bag.

Mama at Meserani Oasis Lodge. One amazing woman. I haven’t even told the story about how she moved here on her own from a completely different part of Tanzania, bought this land from the Masaai, built this place on her own, and planted every one of the hundreds of trees herself. Truly an inspiration. And pay attention to the chicken in the background of the photo…it’s going to re-emerge in Texas later in this story.

Seven months later, and back in Texas, I was digging through my tank bag one day and found a small slip of paper with a phone number on it. So I called Patricia.

“Hello?”

“Hi Patricia. This is going to sound strange, but last May I was riding my motorcycle through Tanzania and I met your mother.”

“Yes. I’ve been expecting your call!”

We talked for a while, and I promised I’d stop by to meet her and her husband and kids soon.

A few weeks ago, I received a text message from Patricia, inviting me to their home for a social gathering they were having that afternoon. So I headed out, armed with photos of me and Mama.

What a great time. Patricia and John are great people, very much like Mama. Very welcoming, very down-to-earth, and with an incredible family. We had a good visit, and I promised to return and take Patricia for a ride in the sidecar.

John & Patricia. Great people. Note the chicken….look familiar? Turns out when Mama came to visit Patricia in Texas, she saw this chicken and said “I have to have one!” So when she returned to Tanzania, she had her son-in-law build her one.

 

 

Patricia and Patricio. I’ll be back soon with the sidecar!

Sitting on their back patio on a warm Central Texas afternoon, looking across the yard at a Land Rover parked in the drive, I couldn’t help but feel like I was back in Africa. Surrounded by friendly people. Ready to see what’s around the next bend.

I hope to see Mama Margaret again some day….maybe in Texas, maybe in Tanzania. In the meantime, I’ve got a great reminder of my days spent in Tanzania right up the road.

The Ultimate Adventurer’s Accessory

February 1, 2017

Before ever leaving on my travels, my good friend Tom and I rode together across much of the western United States. On that trip, on a different, much larger motorcycle, I experienced failure of a couple of electronic accessories I had installed. We began to joke that for the “big trip”, the ultimate setup would be an air-cooled motorcycle and paper maps, thus eliminating most if not all of the electronics.

Recently Tom gave me what I consider the coolest gift ever.

60mm folding pocket sundial. SO cool.

I love my pocket sundial. I carry it everywhere. It’s fun to show people — first asking them if they know what it is, then showing them how it works. And it’s amazingly accurate.

To make it even better, it came with a gift card that read “You are the only person I know who could use this.”

Thanks Tom.

 

Electronics Review

November 11, 2016

A friend I met while riding in Poland asked for more info on the electronics I carried with me over the past year, so I thought I’d do a quick review of the items I took, with some additional comments.

Delorme InReach GPS tracker: 5 Stars (5 / 5) We all know that electronics can let you down. They can quit working at the worst time, they can malfunction, they can not work as you thought they would, etc. This tracker is none of those. Of every electronic device I carried with me, this is the one that required NO maintenance (other than charging), no reboot, no complicated setup. And it is the one electronic device I would never leave home on a long journey through remote areas without. I had a Spot tracker before I bought the InReach. Yes, the initial cost is higher. And the monthly subscription fee is higher, if you use it as much as I did (they have several different levels of plans). But the ability to send and receive text messages via satellite from anywhere in the world makes it worth it. It links via bluetooth to your smartphone so you can compose messages on your phone with the qwerty keyboard, then send them using the InReach. No cell service necessary. And as demonstrated by the “Where Am I Now” button on the blog, the included mapping feature is very handy. You don’t have to pay for an annual subscription either: you can pay by the month, and unsubscribe anytime you’re not traveling, then turn it back on again. Great product. An unfortunate downside (in my opinion) is that Garmin recently bought Delorme. Hopefully they will realize that InReach is a superior product, and they won’t reduce it to the Garmin level.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS25 Camera: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) This was my primary camera for a year on the road. I didn’t take a fancy DSLR or any professional-grade camera equipment, because, quite frankly, I wouldn’t know how to use it if I did. This little point-and-shoot camera worked very well, never failed, and was completely waterproof (it dangled from my wrist in the water as I swam through the Kanba Cave in Guatemala, tubed down the river at Semuc Champey, and swam through Canon de Somoto in Nicaragua). I have since switched to a fancier, more rugged Olympus TG-4, which has amazed me with the quality of the photos it takes.

Samsung Galaxy S3 mobile phone: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5) Ok, this is really a user-preference item and method of travel, but I’ll give a bit of my experience to help you decide what you want to do. Cell service throughout Latin America is pretty good, and free wifi is nearly everywhere. So any phone will likely work. I’ve been an Android guy for a long time, so I just took my Samsung Galaxy S3 with me when I left. It worked great all the way to Panama City, where I got caught in a torrential downpour with the phone in my jacket pocket, and it drowned. I took it apart and let it dry out for a few days, and it came back to life for about another three months, at which point I was in Argentina when it suddenly without warning decided to turn into a paperweight. Totally useless; wouldn’t power on, and I was unable to get anything out of it. I bought a similar Samsung Galaxy Prime (low end, minimal storage capacity) in Argentina, and am still using it today.

My phone acted as a multiple backup plan: backup internet access for research; backup camera for if my primary camera battery was dead or SD card was full; backup gps and map program for when my GPS was either malfunctioning or lying smashed on the floor of a motorcycle shop in Southern Chile; backup keyboard to text via the InReach in remote locations; and oh yes, it worked as a phone as well, although I almost never used it as a phone. Oh, I did use it to play my music through my headset also. Which reminds me: important note: Pandora doesn’t work outside the US, so download music to your phone, or try Spotify.

Keep in mind that the ability to buy and use local SIM cards may influence which phone you decide to take. And be sure your phone is “unlocked” so you can use other SIMs.

T-Mobile cellular plan: 3.8 Stars (3.8 / 5) There are multiple ways to stay connected while traveling in foreign countries. Many people buy a SIM card when they enter a new country, which allows them to use their phone with a local number while they are there. It’s cheap, quick, and easy, and you can buy additional minutes or data if you need it. Others, like me, use an international plan. Not all international plans are equal, so shop around. When I left home in July 2015, I signed up with T-Mobile on their international plan, which gave me unlimited text and data on their partner networks (they have a coverage map on their website if you search hard enough), and phone calls at twenty cents a minute, for about $60 a month. It worked in nearly every country in Latin America, but only in four countries in Africa. I could have just as easily left home with my Android phone and no plan, since free wifi is nearly everywhere, and used Skype or WhatsApp if I needed to call someone.

Garmin Zumo GPS: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5) I started my trip with a well-used Garmin Zumo that I purchased used from a friend and had used for a year on my Super Tenere. It worked well enough, but after about four months, it began to freeze up. At first, the only way I could get it to reboot was to take the battery out of it, which required a #3 allen wrench. Eventually, I figured out that you can hold the power button and the top left (I think) button down at the same time, and it will reset. The Zumo is waterproof, intended for motorcycle use, and a bit outdated compared to new, more “adventure”-based GPS units. (See below for more details on maps).

Garmin Montana 650 GPS: 4.3 Stars (4.3 / 5) After an unfortunate incident in southern Chile where my Garmin Zumo finally met it’s end, I installed a Garmin Montana. This is a bit more rugged unit, and has a camera built into it as well. It doesn’t have a lot of the “touring” motorcycle features that the Zumo had (bluetooth connection between GPS and helmet intercom for turn-by-turn spoken directions, bluetooth link between phone, GPS, and headset, ability to store music on the GPS, etc) but you don’t really need any of that stuff. In fact, you don’t really need a stand-alone GPS if you have a good smartphone and Google maps and/0r the Maps.me app.

The Montana never let me down, always worked well (except when it occasionally just shut off for no reason), and got me through three continents.

Open Street Maps for Garmin: 4.8 Stars (4.8 / 5) If you use a Garmin GPS for international navigation, you’ve probably noticed that Garmin doesn’t sell maps for some countries, and/or the maps they do sell are sorely lacking for detail. Not only that, but why would you buy maps when you can get custom ones for free? It takes a few minutes to learn to use the request form properly, but you can get maps with great details that you can load directly onto your Garmin GPS for free from OpenStreetMaps. I did buy a set of gps maps for Africa from Tracks4Africa which had good details on the smaller roads. As I mentioned earlier, Maps.me and OsmAnd are two great apps for your smartphone that allow you to download maps when you have wifi, then use them offline.

Rowe PDM60 power distribution module: 4.8 Stars (4.8 / 5) A piece of equipment that isn’t chrome, or pretty, but extremely functional. This business-card-sized box works as a circuit breaker for up to six accessory circuits, eliminating the need to have fuses all over your bike. It’s programmable for different circuit capacities (total capacity is 60 amps), and also can be set to delay powering up your accessories for several seconds after turning the key on, which allows all of the battery power to be used to start the bike first. If something trips a breaker, simply turn the key off and back on to reset the PDM60. Completely waterproof and easy to install. I have one on each of my bikes now.

Powerlet 12v outlets: 4 Stars (4 / 5) These are a great way to add 12v power outlets to the bike. I put one on the front of the bike that I then connected to my tank bag so I could charge my iPad and phone inside the tank bag. On the big bike, I have one at the front for the tank bag, and another below the seat, which I can use to power heated riding gear, or a passenger can use it for the same, or to charge a phone. These have the “BMW” type socket and plug, allowing for a tighter connection that just a cigarette-lighter type of plug. I never had a problem with the socket, but I did have a couple of the plugs fail.

Powerlet tank bag through-put: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) This uses a SAE-type connector that allows me to have power inside my tank bag, yet quickly disconnect it for fueling or to carry the bag away. Inside the tank bag I have a dual USB connector for charging electronics.

Sena SMH10 Bluetooth Headset: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) Always worked. After a year, the contacts between the headset module and the helmet mount became a bit wide, and I had to move the module around a bit to get good contact otherwise I’d lose sound in one speaker. Simple controls and easy to operate even with heavy winter gloves. The bass in the speakers isn’t great, but the newer models are better. 

 

“Inside Joke”

November 11, 2016

If you followed my blog as I rode north from Cape Town, South Africa into Namibia, you’ll understand the quote on this awesome coffee mug that my brother and sister-in-law gave me last night.

Very, very cool. A daily reminder of a highlight of the trip.

Very, very cool. A daily reminder of a highlight of the trip.

 

The story surrounding this line has been told many times in the past six months, and will be told many more I’m sure. It never fails to get a laugh, at my expense. If you don’t understand such an odd quote, you can read the story here.

Homesick For The Road: A Visit From Another XT250 Traveler

November 5, 2016

During the year I traveled across four continents on my little XT250, I received emails from others that had found my blog and were planning their own trips. Some already had a Yamaha XT250 and were glad to get some reinforcement of their decision to take it on such a long journey. Others were still deciding what bike to take.

Many who choose/chose the XT are fairly new riders, and the bike offers them a low seat height and smooth, tranquil power. It’s also easy to work on, since it’s air cooled and uses a lot of “old-school” technology.

Not everyone who chooses the XT is a “noob”. I typically kept my mouth shut during my travels, and let others “judge the book by its’ cover”…many, many times along my journey people assumed I was a beginner rider, and offered suggestions on riding techniques, packing, bike repair and prep, etc. A few times, at the end of my stay with them, and after nodding along and taking their advice, I would hand them my business card as I was leaving. It was fun to see the expression on their face change when they suddenly realized that I worked for Yamaha USA, and I usually then mentioned briefly that I had been riding and racing motorcycles my entire life…not just now and then or on and off, but pretty much every week since I was eleven years old. In many cases only then did they begin to truly understand and accept the advantages of such a small bike for the places I had traveled.

This past week, I had the pleasure of hosting another XT250 adventurer on a nearly identical bike.

David stayed with me for a couple of days before crossing into Mexico.

David stayed with me for a couple of days before crossing into Mexico.

 

Comparing bike setup. Major differences: David has a windscreen, and uses Wolfman soft luggage.

Comparing bike setup. Major differences: David has a windscreen, and uses Wolfman soft luggage.

David lives in New York, but spent his early years in Colombia. He just recently decided to ride from the Big Apple to Bogota, and continue on to Ushuaia. This is his first bike, and he spent a good amount of time prepping it for the trip. His enthusiasm is definitely contagious. I wanted to load up and follow him. Just spending a couple of days talking about the trip made me even more homesick for the road.  He’s traveling at a fast clip, especially for a 250, so I don’t think I could catch up to him if I tried, but who knows…will see where he is come the end of December and think about it more until then.

Safe travels David!

 

Product and Gear Review

After a year on the road, I think I have enough experience using the products and gear that I took along, so I’ve decided to do a review of these. I hope you find this useful in deciding what to take along with you on your journey.

Bike Gear

SeatConcepts Seat: 5 Stars (5 / 5) After one year and 53,000km the foam and cover are still like new. Perfect fit. I never would have guessed that a flat seat on a little 250 could be so comfortable for so long. As I’ve said before, if I could only make one modification to this bike before leaving on a trip like this, the Seat Concepts seat kit would be it.

RaceTech Suspension Modifications: 4 Stars (4 / 5) This is really a combination of rider preference and correct setup for the weight I carried. The XT250 suspension is very soft out of the crate, and RaceTech hadn’t done a lot of XT250s for Round-the-World travel by a 6-foot-plus, 200 pound guy with a lot of off-road experience (let’s face it, that’s not the intended market for this bike). So I wasn’t expecting much when I contacted Matt Wiley at RaceTech to inquire about valving and springs for this old-school-style suspension. Matt was able to put together a set of RaceTech’s Gold Valves and stiffer springs (adapters needed for the rear shock) that worked great. The front fork set-up was spot-on and worked fantastic over the corrugated dirt roads (“ripio”) in Argentina as well as just carving through the paved mountain passes in South America and Europe. The rear shock required a bit more fiddling, and probably needs a slightly softer spring than the one I chose.

Renthal Handlebars: 5 Stars (5 / 5) Way stronger than the stock bars. Great fit, very comfortable. I consider this a “must-have” if you’re setting off on a long trip, especially if you’re going to spend any amount of time off-road. The stock bars don’t have a cross-bar, and tend to bend when dropped. The Renthals are much stronger. I used the “CR High” bars, which are slightly taller than stock, and slightly wider (you may need to cut the ends of the bars slightly to allow for proper cable reach). 

Oxford Grip Heaterz: 5 Stars (5 / 5) Durable, functional, and easy to use with a great little digital heat controller that is easy to use with winter gloves and never failed. I was surprised how much I used these. The grips held up great with very little wear after 53,000 km. Be sure to follow the glue instructions properly to keep them from coming loose. 

Acerbis Handguards: 4 Stars (4 / 5) Strong, Install-and-forget, Positioning can be limited by brake hose and cables, but there are alternative brackets available that help add clearance in these areas. Either install these before you leave, or pack a bunch of spare levers with you. I had a few tumbles and the bike got blown over by the wind once in South Africa. I never had a damaged lever thanks to these handguards.

DMO Specialties Wide Footpegs: 5 Stars (5 / 5) Strong, Durable, Comfortable, Easy to install. I’m always nervous about installing aftermarket pegs, because I spend a lot of time standing on them, especially offroad, and if one were to fail, it could be bad. These look as good now as they did when I installed them.

Happy Trails Pannier and Rear Rack System: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5) The only real system available for the XT250. Fairly good fit though the hardware is cheap (if you install this using their hardware you’ll need to pack a 13mm wrench in your tool kit…nothing else on the bike uses a 13mm wrench). Adaptable to soft or hard panniers. I bought the top plate to put on top of the rear rack (makes a big flat table area), and although the top rack has a bunch of pre-cut holes in it (it’s a universal piece even though it’s sold on their website for the XT250), none of the holes match up to the top rack, and it doesn’t come with any mounting hardware, so you’re on your own to figure out how to mount the top plate to the rack. I ended up welding tabs to the rack so that I could bolt the top rack directly to it. The pannier racks also come with turn signal relocation brackets that aren’t well designed, allowing the turn signals to “droop” over time, and the right rear turn signal can get in the exhaust flow and melt. I tossed the turn signal brackets and welded tabs onto the rear rack to mount my turn signals.

Holan Nomada Aluminum Panniers: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) Solid, tough, reliable. After 53,000km and a few crashes and tip-overs, these are still excellent. The gaskets are still perfect and they are still water-tight. The only noticeable wear is in the latches due to me opening them from one end and letting the latch support the lid with my heavy bag strapped to the top of the lid. It’s a shame these aren’t better known in the US; in my opinion they are the absolute best on the market.

MSR Skid plate: 4 Stars (4 / 5) Easy install; Good fit; Drain plug access good, but still makes a mess when changing oil. Won’t fit CA models without modification (Carbon canister)

Wolfman Expedition Tank Bag: 4 Stars (4 / 5) Good fit, even on this small bike’s small tank. Lots of storage space and pockets. Install the straps and forget them. Rain cover is far from waterproof.

Pirelli MT21 tires: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) Very predictable on and off road, even in the wet; Good fit and good wear considering they are full knobbies. In 53,000km, I never had a single flat tire.

Sunstar 16T countershaft sprocket: 5 Stars (5 / 5) Good fit, good wear, good gearing choice for distance touring on the XT250.

RotoPax Fuel and Water Containers & Mounting System:  

1.75 gal fuel: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

3.0 gal fuel: 3 Stars (3 / 5)

1.0 gal water: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

I should have stayed with the 1.75 gallon fuel container for the entire trip; I didn’t need the 3 gallon container anywhere I went, and the 3 gallon container leaked at the cap most of the time, where the 1.75 gallon never did. The one gallon water container was invaluable in Africa for cooking and daily water needs. The mounting system (with lock) works well, though the lock needed to be lubed occasionally because dirt would get in it because it faced up. Being able to stack two cans and lock them in place was nice.

Ortlieb 41 Liter Rack Bag: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) Super tough. Stood up to a lot of abuse, until the RotoPax mount wore a hole through the bottom of it, and of course it was no longer waterproof after that. I will buy another of these bags and take it with me everywhere.

Kriega Tool Roll5 Stars (5 / 5) Took a beating, got thrown in the dirt and on the pavement quite a bit, bounced around inside my PVC tool tube, and never lost a thread or rubbed a hole in it. Had room for more tools than I carried.


Camping Gear

MSR Hubba Hubba Tent: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) Durable; Comfortable; Quick pitch and teardown; Two Doors; Vestibules nice but limited storage if using with two people; Gear attic nice but can cause small damage to mesh if tent is folded up with gear attic still attached; Seams of rain fly need to be re-sealed after about 100 days of use; DAC poles excellent; plenty of interior room for one person and gear, or possibly two people with no gear inside (the “Gear Shed” that I purchased with my Hubba Hubba is huge and I could store a lot of gear in it, but I chose not to take it since it was just me in the tent).

Exped Downmat 9LW Air Mattress: 4 Stars (4 / 5) Easily inflated; extremely comfortable; relatively compact when stored. I had one fail in Argentina (one of the internal baffles came loose), and Exped replaced it free of charge. The new one came with a “Schnozzel” air bag inflator rather than the integral hand pump that was built into the original mattress. The Schnozzle is quicker and easier than the integral pump. It takes a few tries to figure out how much air is right for you (hint: don’t over-inflate it), but once you do, you can’t beat it. 

Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed sleeping bag: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5) If you don’t like the restrictions of a mummy bag, you’ll probably like this bag. No zipper, the top folds down like a comforter. It’s easy to turn over and move around inside it comfortably, and it feels more like a bed with a comforter than a sleeping bag. Only real complaint: there’s an opening at the bottom that you can stick your feet out of, in case you want to “wear” the bag like a comforter (I imagine sitting in a chair at night watching the stars), and then you can walk around while in it. Several times while sliding into the bag at night or rolling over, I inadvertently stuck my feet out of the bottom of the bag.

Black Diamond Head Torch: 2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5) Acceptable but not great. Need to carry extra batteries. Failed after 11 months. This light uses 3 AAA batteries, which last quite a while but require that you carry at least three extra batteries for safety. It puts out a decent amount of light when the batteries are fresh, but there are a lot better head torches out there (and yes, they cost more than this one). Next time I’ll seriously consider a Pietzl. Takes up slightly more storage space, a little heavier and a bit more pricey, but worth it for the light and ability to recharge the battery,

SnowPeak Giga Stove: 4 Stars (4 / 5) Extremely small, lightweight, durable, no cleaning necessary after one year of use. Igniter can be finicky but once I figured it out I never had to use a butane lighter again (though it’s still a good idea to carry the lighter as a backup). Gas canisters available nearly everywhere; I never failed to find gas, but always carried two so I had a backup. Having previously used a MSR Whisperlite International stove running petrol (gasoline) from the bike, I still prefer the SnowPeak and gas canisters. Most people point out that with the Whisperlite, they don’t have to carry gas canisters, since they already have the fuel on the bike. But you still have to carry the fuel bottle for the stove, so it isn’t really saving space. Plus, the Whisperlite puts out a lot of soot, requiring cleaning and maintenance, whereas with the SnowPeak, I just pack it up. No cleaning, no mess, no maintenance (so far at least). Although to be fair, the Whisperlite will probably boil water faster than the SnowPeak. The SnowPeak Giga is very small, so you probably won’t be preparing large feasts with it; I had no problem cooking eggs, sausage, bacon, pasta, etc as well as my morning coffee each day. While probably not necessary, I used the optional wind-break on my stove all the time.

REI Folding Camp Chair with DAC poles: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) I love this chair. It’s light, packs down small, and is very comfortable. The large DAC tubes are strong and I never had a problem with it. The seat material wipes dry quickly after a rainy night so you can sit in the chair the next morning. I had a lot of comments from other campers asking about my chair and where I bought it; the same chair is sold under several other brand names. The only complaint I can think of is that when you fold the chair up, the tubes sometimes get “tangled” up causing the overall package to be a little bigger than it should. A few extra seconds of attention to detail will prevent this.


Clothing/Riding Gear

Klim Badlands Pro Jacket & Pants: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5) Tough, durable, but wear on pants from contact with tank bag (WTF?!?), Zipper failure, Jacket zipper malfunctions, small thread failures here and there on jacket and pants. For the price, I expected better customer service. The overall durability was good. but for that kind of money, should have been better. I followed the instructions for washing, reapplying water repellent, and drying, but it seems like the GoreTex has just lost its’ ability to repel water. I was soaked through in England and Switzerland after heavy/long rains.

Klim Adventure gloves: 4 Stars (4 / 5) Good fit, very comfortable, durable. Eventually I had a couple of holes in the nylon material (not in a critical area). I thought these gloves were a bit pricey at USD$89, but I just noticed that they have been discontinued and replaced by a “New” Adventure model at $179!! It looks to me like the Dakar Pro glove in their current lineup is similar to my old-style “Adventure” gloves.

Alpinestars Drystar SR3 Waterproof Gloves2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5) Terrible fit, took three tries to get a pair that I could wear. Eventually had to buy XXL in order to get my hands in the gloves, but then the fingers were way too long. Worked well in the rain with reasonable “feel” for thicker gloves, but the fingers being too long caused problems with good lever control.

Shoei NeoTec Helmet: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5) I really want to give this helmet a higher rating, but a number of little things prevent me from doing so. After using it for a year, I can say I would struggle to do this kind of trip with anything but a flip-front helmet. The ability to flip it up to get a drink, to speak with checkpoint officers, or just to talk to the petrol attendant is nice. Downsides: if you crack the shield at all in the rain, it rains down the inside of the shield (use a Pinlock shield and you won’t have to open it because it won’t fog in the rain); it’s noisy compared to a non-flip-front full coverage helmet.

Sena SMH10 Bluetooth Headset: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) Always worked. After a year, the contacts between the headset module and the helmet mount became a bit wide, and I had to move the module around a bit to get good contact otherwise I’d lose sound in one speaker. Simple controls and easy to operate even with heavy winter gloves. The bass in the speakers isn’t great, but the newer models are better. 

Forma Adventure Boots: 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5) They look like motocross boots, but they aren’t. They have much less support and armor in them, which allows for all-day comfort and the ability to walk around in them, but it also means less protection. Far from waterproof as well. Good soles, good durability.

NorthFace Convertible Pants: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) It’s hard to complain too much about the one pair of pants I brought on this trip. Yep, any time I wasn’t wearing my Klim riding gear, I was wearing this one pair of pants. That’s a lot to ask out of a pair of pants, and I did have the stitching in the crotch fail but I sewed them up and continued to use them. Overall they wore better than the $600 Klim pants (how come the tank bag doesn’t wear out the NorthFace pants where they contact, but the $600 Klim Badlands pants can’t deal with it?)

UnderArmour t-shirts: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) I carried three of these with me, and now I hardly ever wear anything else. In fact, I’ve tried to wear some of my old cotton t-shirts, and I find that they feel heavy, don’t breathe, and feel dirty after one day. The UA shirts are thin, lightweight, dry quickly if you sweat in them, wash easily and dry quickly, pack small and can be worn for several days without getting smelly.

UnderArmour boxers: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) Like the UA shirts, they are extremely light, extremely comfortable, wash and dry quickly, and can be worn for more than a day (or two) without getting smelly (sorry, but it’s true…). I don’t wear any other brand or type now. I started the trip with three pair, and after one year, one pair has one tiny hole. All three still have perfect elastic in the waist and legs, and it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between the three pair I wore for a year and the new pair I just bought.

Smartwool socks: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5) I can’t imagine wearing cotton socks ever again. Same as wearing a cotton t-shirt. No thanks. SmartWool dries fast, is comfortable, breathes well, doesn’t smell. I bought a thin pair of sock liners at an outdoor store in Cape Town, and often wore the sock liners inside the SmartWool socks, even in the extreme Africa heat. Very comfortable.

Merrill Trail Shoes: 3 Stars (3 / 5) Lightweight and pricey. Other than a pair of flip-flops and my Forma Adventure boots, these are the only shoes I took. I put a pair of Dr Scholls gel inserts in them before I left home. They got used in the water in Guatemala and Nicaragua; otherwise they were used for walking around. The soles split, and the toe started coming apart on one of them, but I continued to wear them till the end. I wouldn’t buy these again. I’ll find something a little more durable and sacrifice a little extra weight for durability.

“What If?”: A Look Back at My Decision to Ride The World on a 250

August 11, 2016

As I said before I ever left over a year ago, there is a place and time to take a big bike on a trip around the world, and there’s a place and time to take a small bike. For the trip I chose to take, the small bike made a lot more sense. But, what if I had chosen to take my 1200cc Yamaha Super Tenere?

Below is a comparison of various costs of the last year on the XT250, versus the same route (mileage) on the 1200 (okay, realistically, you probably wouldn’t go some of the places on the 1200 that I went on the 250).

Miles Ridden: 32,270

 

Fuel

The XT250 averaged around 72 miles per US gallon of gas. My Super Tenere averages around 46 mpg. So while I used around 454 gallons of fuel on the 250, the 1200 would have used around 686 gallons for the same miles, which adds up to an extra $834 spent on petrol over the year.

 

Shipping

The cost of shipping the bike from Panama to Colombia on the Stahlratte sailboat is the same regardless of bike, but the other three shipments I made were by air: Buenos Aires to Capetown, Nairobi to London, and Zurich to Houston. The air shipments are based on volumetric weight — the size of the crate (unless the actual weight is more). I was able to put the 250 in a crate that measured approximately 2.0 cubic meters, whereas the 1200’s crate would be a bit larger at 2.6 cubic meters. This larger crate would have cost an extra $1500 over the three shipments.

 

Maintenance

The 1200 wins when it comes to drive system maintenance. I had to replace the chain and sprockets on the 250 in Argentina, which meant spending an extra $130 over the price of just changing the shaft drive oil in the 1200.

Although I could have done with only two sets of tires on the Super Tenere (the Heidenau K60s are very, very hard tires and last a long time), I used five sets of the soft knobby tires on the 250. Part of this has to be attributed to the different route I took on the 250, which I wouldn’t have taken on the 1200, but I’m trying to compare actual cost for the mileage here. So in the end, the cost of five sets of tires on the XT250 is actually $15 more than the cost of two sets of tires for the Super Tenere.

The difference in the cost of oil and filter changes is a bit more significant. I used synthetic oil as much as possible, which is expensive, but worth it in my opinion, and I changed oil every 3,000 miles. The 250 only holds 1.5 quarts of oil, whereas the 1200 takes just under four quarts. So the cost of ten oil changes works out to an extra $330 on the Super Tenere.

I used six total sets of brake pads on the 250: three front and three rear. On the Super Tenere, I estimate that I would have also used six sets: two rears and four fronts (dual discs), although this might be generous given the weight and conditions. If I did use these numbers, the difference would only be about $40 more for the Super Tenere (the pads are a bit more expensive on the bigger bike).

 

Other Considerations

Besides the above costs, here are a few other considerations when determining which bike to take:

If you are going to countries where a carnet is needed (and if you are going to ride the world, you most likely will), keep in mind that the cost of the carnet is based on a multiplier of the value of your vehicle. Thus, a 2014 Super Tenere versus a 2014 XT250 can mean a difference of $30,000 valuation on the carnet (value times as much as three hundred percent for certain countries). An older big bike might be a worthwhile consideration here.

In some countries you’ll feel more secure if you can park your bike inside the lobby or courtyard of a hotel. This may or may not be possible on the larger bike due to the width of a hallway or the stairs leading up to it. In all honesty, I can only think of one hostel I stayed at (in Peru) where I wouldn’t have been able to get the Super Tenere up the steps and through the door, but it’s something to bear in mind. Sometimes removing the luggage and having someone else to act as a spotter might be enough.

On either bike, if you’re going alone, be sure to practice picking it up, especially with it fully loaded. This might mean removing the panniers and other luggage first where possible to reduce the weight. If you’re going where I went, it’s probably not a matter of if, but when you drop it, and there might not be anyone else around to help for hours. Learn the tricks to getting it back on its’ wheels before you leave home.

And if you’re taking the big bike, be prepared to stand out like a “Rich American” (or Brit, or Aussie, or whatever your license plate says you are). While none of us will ever blend in with the locals, my 250 attracted much less attention overall than the guy in Argentina on the BMW 1200 GS with the fancy paint and all the lights and the two extra tires strapped to it, which looked like a two-wheeled version of a Hummer pulling into the small villages. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be that guy. Just realize that you may be treated differently by the locals. It may be a bit more work to negotiate prices on hotel, border crossings, etc and the prices will likely start higher.

So as I said in the beginning, and even before leaving on my trip, which bike you take is really a matter of what kind of trip you plan. Yes, taking the big bike can be more expensive. But if you can afford it, and are planning more pavement, and/or are going two-up, then the bigger bike probably makes more sense. On the other hand, if you want to spend more time off-road, or on the less-traveled and more challenging dirt roads in the mountains, don’t want to stand out quite as much, and don’t plan to have a passenger (much), and are looking to either save money or make your money last longer thus being able to travel further, consider the smaller bike.

 

 

Back to Rehab

August 1, 2016

Like an addict who enters rehab, a place he really isn’t comfortable, in order to avoid returning to where he would rather be, so I have returned to work. Every day I struggle with my addiction… the road calls to me; faraway lands and people are constantly begging for “just one more taste”.

I have to fight the urge to give in. I have to focus on the job, stay “clean” and earn a paycheck for a while — a paycheck that I already know will ultimately go towards more of my “drug”. Each evening I return home and look at my motorcycle. It tugs at my resolve: “You could be in Mexico in a few hours. Central America isn’t far from there. You were so close to Kazakhstan, Turkey, Romania, and more just a month ago. You know you want to go back.”

I know that it would take very little to slip back into that lifestyle. Where there is no time frame, no schedule, no stress. Where days run together and dates mean nothing. Where new faces appear every day, curious how I arrived in their country, the things I’ve experienced, and where I will go next.

Once you’ve been there, it’s hard to go back to a “normal” life. You’re always just a step away from falling off the wagon and back into wanderlust. I am still struggling with returning to “social norms”. It has never been my strong point. I’ve always been an outsider; always lived a bit on the edge of society. Motorcycles tend to have that effect on people, or maybe it’s the other way around.

But for now I must work hard to focus on today. I must put my head down and get the job done. The addiction of dreams must remain under control a little longer.

As with other addictions…one day at a time.

And today is Day One. My first day back to work.

 

If Not Now, Soon….

Looking Back: Bolivia Border Crossing and My Only Bribe

July 26, 2016

Back in January, I crossed from Peru into Bolivia. Aside from the “Border Helper” scams in Central America where Judith and I had a very pushy and fraudulent “helper” crossing into Honduras, all of my other border crossings were relatively painless, even if they took some time. Except Bolivia. I intended to tell this story after I left Bolivia and crossed into Chile or Argentina, but somehow it got lost, until I was telling it at dinner the other night, and was reminded that I hadn’t mentioned it in my blog. So here goes:  my only bribe I paid in my first year on the road.

Leaving Tinjani Canyon in Peru, I headed for the border at Lake Titicaca. I was already aware of the “reciprocity fee” that I was going to have to pay as an American in order to enter Bolivia, and I had US dollars ready. I checked myself and the bike out of Peru (after standing in line behind a busload of student tourists), and rode the short distance to the entrance to Bolivia. There I gathered up my paperwork once more, and headed for Immigration.

The Immigration officer asked for my passport, and upon seeing it was issued from the United States, his demeanor rapidly went downhill. He asked if I was aware of the reciprocity fee. Yes, I was. He demanded the $160 in US currency. I pulled out eight $20 bills and laid them on the counter. Ever so slowly, he picked up one at a time, held it up to the light, and inspected it closely. Each time, he shook his head, tossed the bill down, and said “this one is not acceptable”, and pointed to a tiny one to two millimeter tear at the edge of the bill where it had been folded in half. Normally I wouldn’t have even noticed this. He informed me that the Bolivian bank would not accept these “damaged” bills, and asked for another. Fortunately I had several more, and eventually I was able to appease him with bills that were acceptable.

Next he asked for my visa application. I mistakenly had assumed that I would be able to fill one out at the border, and I didn’t do it in advance. Wrong. No forms available. It must be done online, printed, and brought with me. There is a copy place next door to Aduana (Customs), since you have to make multiple copies of all of your forms, and they had internet service and would complete the form and print it for a reasonable fee. So I walked next door and stood in line.

It turns out there was a line because the internet connection was down. So we all stood around and waited for an hour or so until the connection was restored, and my visa application was prepared and printed. (Side note: in the two hours that I was in the copy place, I made several friends, including a woman who wanted to take me home to meet her daughter.)

Back to Immigration with my visa application (and two passport photos, which I had in my document bag), and my visa was accepted. Next, the Immigration officer asked for a copy of my hotel reservation for Bolivia. I didn’t have a hotel reservation. I was planning to camp, or worst case, to find a hotel in Copacabana when I got there (which is about three miles away).

“You can’t enter Bolivia unless you have a copy of your hotel reservation.”

Great. Well, I could go back and stand in line at the copy place again, and maybe pay the guy there to get on the internet and book me a room, but at this point, I was growing tired of this.

“I don’t have a reservation. I am going to Copacabana and will get a room at the Hotel Lago Azul” (I remembered the name of a hotel I had seen advertised a few days earlier). We went back and forth for a good five minutes until he finally sighed heavily and stamped my passport.

Next step: Aduana, to import the bike into Bolivia. Aduana asked for copies of my title, registration, and passport. I knew this would happen, so while I was getting my visa application, I had them make copies of these. The customs officer was very friendly, and after walking out and verifying the VIN on the bike, he completed my temporary importation paperwork and handed it to me.

At this point, at most border crossings, I would have been done and headed out. But here, there is one more step. You must present all of the documents you just obtained to a National Police officer for review.

I walked into his office and handed him my paperwork. He briefly looked it over.

“Where is your insurance?” he asked.

“What insurance?”, I replied, playing just a little dumb.

“You must have insurance for your moto before you can enter Bolivia.”

“Okay”, I said, “Where can I buy it?” Normally there is a small shack selling insurance at the border.

“You cannot buy it here.”

“Where can I buy it?”

“La Paz.”

La Paz is about a hundred miles from the border. Into Bolivia.

“Okay, then can I get it when I get to La Paz?”, I asked.

“You cannot enter Bolivia without insurance.”

“So how do I get the insurance?”

“You must go to La Paz.”

We went around and around like this for a while until I finally realized that I was going to have to buy my way into the country.

“Is there some way I can get to La Paz in order to buy insurance?”

“Well, it is my wife’s birthday today. You could buy her flowers.”

Whoa. That was original. And unexpected. Not the straightforward bribe request I had expected.

“Okay, how much are the flowers I should buy your wife?”

“Ten US dollars.”

I reached into my pocket to pay him, and realized I only had $20 bills. I wasn’t going to give him a twenty. But I also had Bolivianos, the local currency.

“Can I pay you in Bolivianos?”

“Yes.”

“How much?”

“Twenty Bolivianos.”

I did the math in my head. Twenty Bolivianos was about $3 US. I quickly pulled out twenty BoB and handed it to him before he could realize his mistake.

“Now can I go to La Paz and buy my insurance?”

“I don’t care what you do”, he said.

So off I rode to Copacabana, feeling a mixture of frustration over having been hassled and swindled, yet vindicated in having only paid three bucks.

And that’s the only bribe I paid in one year and 34 countries, which included more than 56 visits each to immigration and aduana. I don’t have a moral to this story, just a little advice for those planning a similar route:

  1. Carry at least $300 in US $20 bills; make sure they are crisp and not damaged at all (no tiny little tears), and make sure they are dated 2006 or later (many countries won’t take bills older than 2006). Hide the money on the bike, on yourself, or a combination thereof.
  2. Carry at least five or six photocopies of your passport photo page, driver’s license, title and/or registration, and at least four passport-sized photos. This may speed things up, but be aware that you’ll still have to make copies at the border, because they will ask for copies of documents that they just issued to you, and you will be responsible for making them. Six copies won’t last you more than a few border crossings, so you’ll have to make more later. Also, scan and upload copies of these documents to the cloud, and save them to your laptop, ipad, or phone or whatever you carry with you.
  3. Always approach a border crossing with the attitude that you have no time schedule, and don’t mind if it takes all day or longer. If you don’t act like you’re in a hurry and instead act like you could camp there for days if necessary, they probably won’t feel like hassling you as much. Be happy, smile, shake hands, and be ready to hand out your stickers. Most of them love the stickers, and will quickly forget to hassle you.
  4. Don’t be afraid to pay a bribe if it makes sense in the long run. I wasn’t going to sit at the Bolivian border for another couple of hours sweating the National Police officer out over three bucks. I don’t condone this system, but as I was told in Bolivia, “Bolivia runs on corruption. Without it, nothing would get done.”