While we wait for the world to open up a bit, I thought I would reflect on some lessons learned from my last Round-The-World ride. These are thoughts and themes that are common to travelers, but may be new to those who are just beginning to think about a long trek.
Today I’m going to discuss the upside and downside to solo travel, at least from my perspective and experience, along with the realities of this type of trip versus what you may see, hear, or read.
Solo travel is very different from traveling with a companion or a group. It has pros and cons.
- You have total freedom. You are not tied to someone else’s time frame or schedule. You can go or stay wherever you want whenever you want, for as long as you want.
- You are much more approachable. When locals see you alone, they are very curious about why, where you have come from, how far and how long you have traveled, and they aren’t afraid to approach you to ask. They don’t feel like they are interfering, as they often do if you are together with others.
- It can get lonely. Especially if/when you are in a country where you don’t speak the language and can’t understand the signs. Just finding a place to eat or buy food can be difficult. For some, this isolation can lead to depression, or worse. It’s important to be aware of these feelings, and make adjustments before it affects your happiness. It may require making an extra effort to find people to hang with, whether ex-pats, fellow travelers, or friendly locals that speak your language.
- You may see extraordinary things that you wish you could share with others then and there, rather than only through Instagram, Facebook, or a blog. That sudden “haha, look at that!” feeling that you haven’t had for months. Intrepid UK bicycle tourer Anna McNuff, in her book “50 Shades of the USA: One Woman’s 11,000 mile cycling adventure through eveery state of America”, put it best as she stood alone looking out at Niagara Falls:
“This was one of the few times on the journey when it felt like a shame to be experiencing the views alone. I didn’t feel that I could accost a stranger and explode into excited chatter about how fabulous a sight of natural wonder it was, so I had to keep all those emotions to myself. All that joy, all that amazement. Surrounded by people sharing the sight together, I noted how their joy seemed to be doubled when shared.”
One sometimes overlooked aspect to solo travel by motorcycle is safety and security. I met many women traveling in pairs (both by motorcycle, and backpacking). Teaming up with another person, even for short distances, can add some sense of security and relaxation, as you get to share experiences. It also has a significant advantage in a couple of specific situations: border crossings and shopping. In certain countries, the process of stamping yourself and your vehicle into a country may require you to leave your bike (and all of your belongings) in a potentially sketchy place (that in itself describes many border areas) in order to enter an office. This process can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, and you may not be able to park the bike where you can keep an eye on it. Having another traveler present to stay with the bikes and gear while one person does the paperwork can definitely ease your mind. Granted, in some cases, it will be necessary for the other person to enter the office to complete their paperwork, so it will take longer, but speed shouldn’t be the driving factor at border crossings. These situations are one reason I chose to use lockable hard panniers on my bike(s) for travel in developing countries, where theft can be problematic. I’ve heard too many stories of people returning to their bike only to find their soft pannier cut open and their gear long gone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of soft luggage, especially when traveling in safer places.
Having said that, I have to admit that at many borders I crossed — especially in certain parts of Africa and Central America where I had a pre-conceived idea of problems — people were curious, but very respectful, and did not bother my gear. However, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.
When the Going Gets Rough
When you read travel blogs, books, or watch a show or a movie about travel, it almost never shows the complete picture. People don’t want to watch the negative or down sides of travel. They want to be entertained. So occasionally on a show like “Long Way Round” they will show a breakdown or an accident. At the most, it lasts about two to three minutes on the show. Now, keep in mind that those guys had a large support crew following them, and their focus was to make entertainment. In the real world, for the average person, a breakdown can last days, weeks, or even months, if you are in Mongolia or Chad and need a specialized part. The first days of this can be exciting and upbeat, but it can go downhill if you don’t maintain a positive outlook or plan. In most cases, these instances make for some great tales after the fact, and although it’s hard at the time, it’s better if you can remind yourself of the great “adventure” story you’ll have once you are out of whatever situation you find yourself in.
There are thousands of stories about bodging (inelegant temporary repairs). I’m one of those guys that others tend to refer to as a “McGyver” type, because I can usually find a way to fix something using the least likely but available objects. I will always remember one of my first introductions to round-the-world motorcycle travel, around 1986, when a Danish couple stopped into a motorcycle shop I was working at in South Texas. They had been most of the way around the world already on their 1978 Yamaha XS750, and he told a story of breaking down in remote west Africa. He ended up removing a door hinge from a small hut in the village they were in, and fashioning an internal transmission part from it. That story has always remained in the back of my mind when something goes wrong: “if he could make transmission parts from a door hinge, you can certainly fix this!”
Not Just the Physical Toll of Travel
The old adage of “Fail to plan, Plan to fail” also is true if you don’t consider your mental health on a trip like this. I had read enough and heard enough before leaving on my trip, that I knew burnout was real and would happen if I didn’t plan ahead of it. So before I ever left, I did two things:
First, I made an agreement with myself that I would not travel for more than four days a week. That gave me three days a week to slow down and relax. On those days that I was moving, I tried not to cover more than 150 to 180 miles a day. I wasn’t always successful, but I set that limit as my goal. That may sound like a snail’s pace if you are used to Interstate Highways and averaging 65 to 70 miles per hour, but once you leave the US, you can only average around 35 mph in the places worth seeing.
There is a popular term in general aviation called “get-there-itis”, which leads pilots to make bad decisions that end badly. Rushing on a long journey can not only be dangerous, it can be physically and mentally exhausting, thereby taking a lot of the fun out of what is supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime. Obviously not everyone who sets off on a world journey has an unlimited amount of time; some are simply using their vacation time off work, and thus are more pressed to keep moving. My advice would be to shorten your journey rather than push your limits, so you can slow down, see more, and enjoy it.
The second thing I did before I left in 2015 was to book a month off of my tour and buy a plane ticket home about six months into my travels. That month off was crucial for emotionally and mentally recharging. I have seen many people start off on the trip of their dreams only to get overwhelmed by the cultural differences, and/or burned out and return home early.
Okay. Since I have spent the past few posts on my soap box and talking about travel in general, rather than doing it, it’s time to get this road trip started!