There are always things to be afraid of. I remember the man from Buenos Aires that I met in Fairbanks. With honest fear in his voice, he had warned me, like so many others have, never to travel through Central or South America."Don't do it! Buenos Aires and much of South America is just terrible. Terrible! If you are European, Canadian, American they kidnap you. Chop off an ear or a finger and send it to you family. Hundreds. Thousands of people kidnapped in this way! I left. Got out of there.", he had said.
I remember talking to Dani, the real adventure rider, if he had had any problems during his journey from Buenos Aires to Deadhorse. "No, the bike ran fine." he replied. "No, no, I mean with people." I explained. "Oh. Yes. I got robbed three times. Twice with a knife. Once I was camping and three guys broke into the tent while I was sleeping.", he said matter of factly, "but it can happen anywhere. You just have to expect it.""What happened?", I asked with increasing interest. "They took stuff. Money. Once they stole my laptop. It's manageable. You just have to be smart and careful. Keep your money separated".
Allan Karl, who had done the crazy trip from Deadhorse to Tierra Del Fuego then over to South Africa and up to Turkey, had at one point while he was crossing Columbia been confronted by men with machine guns. They marched him, at gun point, into the jungle. It turned out ok for him and he was able to continue on, but nevertheless, being marched off into the jungle at the point of a machine gun is an unsettling event.
These are just the people I have met myself.
Regardless, there's still something about going to this arbitrary spot on the map. Tierra Del Fuego.
It scares me, but it calls to me as well. I've often mused how long I would need to prepare. A year or three maybe? I'd have to relearn Spanish at least to some basic level. I'd have to figure out all the border crossings. I'd have to save up a bunch of money. If only I were independently wealthy. I'd have to plan some careful route and keep up on current events deciding which way to go depending on the politics of the day. What about the Cartels? Bandits? I've heard that roads can be blocked by men with guns and you never know if they police or others. If I managed not to have Bad Things(tm) happen, there's the constant threat of disease. I'm not exactly what one would call "healthy".
What I certainly could never do is pack a bike and just go. Is that even possible?
I don't know Colin well but have talked to him briefly on many occasions over the years at Bob's. Clearly, I needed to attend this event.
I really do feel quite privileged that Bob's goes out of it's way to host these events and that I'm able to attend. If there's one thing I really enjoy, it's seeing into the lives of others that are far removed from my own. You get this feeling that you're so close to a much wider world. Things that are impossible, unreachable and excluded are suddenly accessible. Surprisingly, I've been able to stay in touch with all the presenters I've met there and that has further expanded my world. If you are ever in the DC area when Bob's is hosting one of it's events, I highly recommend taking the time out to attend. They happen sporadically, so check their calendar of events regularly.
I rode the guest bike up on a cool Saturday morning. The parking lot was already full of bikes and there were a few familiar faces. There was a 8 valve Royal Blue K100RS there. (I have a 16 valve Royal Blue K100RS.) You don't see many of these as they were never popular bikes. The ones you do see tend to be ridden far. This one had 155,000 on the clock. If 92K is still a baby, as I'm often reminded by other k-bike riders about my bike, what is 155k? Adolescense?
I came across what I assumed what Colin's bike from the trip.
It's a custom adventure bike that Colin built himself. The gas tank is truly monstrous with an 11 gallon capacity. I would later learn during his presentation that this is exactly how the bike was packed during his 11 month journey. Impressive.
He did some really nice work with the console.
I'm usually not a fan of the old airheads (air cooled carbureted old tech bikes from the early 80's and before), but this thing is gorgeous in it's minimalistic utilitarianism. There is an aesthetic to it that really appeals to me.
The above is a professional photo used with permission.
They set up a small seating area inside the showroom with a few rows of chairs. Interestingly, I was not the only Transit Suit wearer there. I've observed that when women show up to some event wearing the same outfit it's a kind of calamity. When guys show up in identical gear, it's a moment to compare notes. As I was talking to the Transit Suit wearer a man walked up. He mentioned his K-bike. "Oh, you've got that Royal Blue one out there, right?" Yup. More conversation and comparing of notes.
As has been the story of my life, I have much in common with old men.
The presentation began and Colin talked about his trip.
(Colin Busch, photo used with permission.)
He talked about the same stories I had heard; about how everyone says it's dangerous; the horror stories. He talked about fear and risk. He showed photos of conditions and how surprisingly good the roads were. He talked repeatedly about the kindness of strangers; about how overwhelmingly nice people were everywhere he went and how excited they were in each little town about what he was doing and that he was riding through. Interestingly, he mentioned that all this enthusiasm people had became an issue since he found it difficult to make stops as it would take 45 minutes or more just to, politely, get back on the road. Everyone would want photos. Kids were endlessly fascinated.
Seemingly, the people in each country complained about the roads and people in the next country over. At each point, it was supposed to get worse but as Colin tells it it never really did. He did have mechanical problems and challenges along the way; as anyone taking a long motorcycle trip will encounter. But at each point he was able to get through them. He tells the story of the time his alternator failed. A guy he met mentioned he might be able to get it fixed. That gentleman took the alternator, drove 240km to a shop he knew. Had it rewound and then brought it back to Colin but would not accept any money for his efforts.
Colin talked about the other riders he met along the way. He talked of a breast cancer survivor who at 5'1" tall was doing the trip solo. He even crossed paths with Helge Pedersen, one of the most famous motorcycle world travellers, who he had met some years earlier and who inspired him to take a trip like this in the first place.
He talked at some length about border crossings and paperwork. Forms were often forged and there's much that we would call corruption. Colin explained that it's a matter of knowing who to talk to and how. This is the part that I would find really challenging, on a personal level. I'm such a stickler for obeying the rules and doing everything correctly that I suspect I would screw this up. I have a real fear of breaking rules. (Pardon me as my German roots show through.) He described the bribes one pays and how to do things on the cheap.
There's a section, the Darien Gap, that cannot be crossed (well, not easily). You can either fly over it or charter a boat. The boats are not authorized for transport so they are "fishing" boats. As Colin described it, you charter a boat, which I understood to probably be a smuggling vessel. They load your bike precariously onto the boat and then take you to Columbia where they drop you off into the waiting hands of authorities who promptly detain you. The word was that it's typically only for 24 hours and they then let you go. With my luck, they'd decide they didn't like me and leave me there to rot indefinitely, which I have heard sometimes happens. Colin's experience, however, was as advertised. After landing, he spent a day detained by the authorities and was then let go with suggestions where to get a nice hotel. He made it through Columbia without incident.
What really surprised me was how little money he spent. Over the 11 months he rode, he spent only $1000/month and did not feel any lack of luxury along the way. He often stayed in hotels or villas. He certainly did not make it sound like he felt he was roughing it.
The themes of risk, fear, time, flexibility, and openness that Colin described in many ways mirrored my own experiences on my, now seemingly little, Deadhorse trip. "If you're on a schedule and only have a fixed amount time, stay home, or take one of the guided tours." he would say.
I asked him about any troubles he ran into with people along the way. "What I've learned is that overwhelmingly people are nice and friendly. There are always the 2% anywhere that might be a problem. But that's as true here as anywhere else. But no, I didn't have any troubles at all." he said.
Dr. Werner Bausenhart at the Swiss Embassy
Later in the week, I went to another world traveler event, this one at the Swiss Embassy. In a rare combination of interests, Dr. Werner BausenHart had been travelling the world on a motorcycle over a couple decades and was presenting his trips in German. I have less and less opportunity to use my German these days and hearing about a long trip in German was a rare opportunity not to be missed.
I knew, however, what I was in for. I made sure to be presentable and drove to the embassy instead of riding. As expected, it was a very old school European styled semi-formal event. I was on the younger end of the spectrum and I believe one of the only riders there. I have no pictures of the event since that would not have been appropriate, but the place was fairly packed. It was being hosted by the German Language Society.
Dr. Bausenhart had been a language professor in Canada for some years. At the age of 50 he was offered an early retirement which he accepted. It was around that time that he first got into motorcycling. He quickly outgrew his first BMW and purchased an R100GS (adventure bike). With this started what would turn into a 25 year obsession with very long distance motorcycle travel. He did the Labrador loop and then proceeded up to Deadhorse, Alaska. He went down to Tierra Del Fuego. He visited every country along with it's capital in Central and South America. He circumnavigated Africa. He rode through the Middle East and across Russia only to travel south and back again across China. He's ridden from London to Singapore and jumped across to Australia. It is good to have a Canadian passport and speak with a thick German accent. The world is open to you in ways that it is not when you have an American passport.
And he did all this starting at the age of 50. He's 76 now.
In contrast to Colin's presentation, Dr. Bausenhart's presentation was about landmarks and distances. His audience did not ride so the distances he rattled off in his descriptions were not noticed, but they were astounding. While I spent 77 days on my round trip to Deadhorse, he took 10 days to make it up there. A trip around Russia and through China? I think he said it took him 4 months.
He would mention landmarks in the US and Canada with the obligatory, "That's not far from here.".
When he mentioned people, which was rare, it was usually only in the context of beauracrats at border crossings. They seemed to test his patience. His trips were much more expensive and he spent much more time doing things by the book, as I probably would if I traveled. He described Central and South America as "incredibly corrupt" and said border crossing would cost him a couple hundred bucks in bribes. When faced with the Darien Gap he decided to fly instead of take a boat. "I didn't want to take a smugglers boat and then rot in some Columbian prison for 6 months." he said.
An articulate and incredibly educated man, Dr. Bausenhart seemed to focus on things that were more like a professor looking at a text book reading about an adventure than actually living it. He showed photos of landmarks and the endpoints of his trips. There was no mention of having been changed by his trips or what he had learned. At no point did he mention any families taking him in or anyone along the way touching his soul. He made it seem that he just went, looked at things, and then moved on much like a tourist looking at old buildings. There was a closed and guarded feeling to his presentation.
In typical German professor fashion, no presentation about world travel would be complete without a geography quiz. He showed photos of landmarks from around the planet that I had never even heard of before. He would show the photo and ask the audience what it was and where, and by implication why it was significant. What do I know about some snow covered peak in Iran, or a cannon in a square in Pakistan, monuments in China, buildings in Dubai or temples in India? At each point, multiple people in the audience, demonstrating a depth of geographic and cultural knowledge I simply lack, would compete with the correct answers. Dr. Bausenhart would mention old stories tied to each landmark assuming his audience had read them. It was clear there was a depth of well-rounded education in the room I simply lack. It was humbling and I felt ashamed at my shallowness. "Typical American." I thought as I sat silently thinking about a wide world I obviously know little about.
No one recognized the Dalton Highway. At least I had that one.
All told, Dr. Bausenhart rode over 219,000km on his trips. For each trip he wrote a book. I will probably get the one about his travels through the Americas: 8 Around the Americas on a Motorcycle.
I asked him about any troubles he had had with theft or other unpleasantness. He said he always stayed in good secure hotels and would cover his bike well. "In Muslim countries, they like to touch everything so tell them that it's your wife under the cover, then they'll back off." he mentioned jokingly.
Despite the disconnected from the feeling of the world nature of his presentation, Dr. Bausenhart did share one theme with Colin.
The world is smaller than it once was and you can go around it on a motorcycle. You can spend a lot of money or a little. But it is entirely doable.
I found myself wondering, "How can one travel so far and experience so many things and choose a presentation of just landmarks?" Maybe it was tuned to this audience and in a different setting maybe he gives a different presentation. I don't know.
I left with the thought, "It's not how much you have travelled but how well that's important."
It reminds me of what Dani said now so long ago: "It's only kilometers. I've met people out here who have been riding for years. 5, 10, 15. It's just numbers. What have they learned?".