“We'd like you to do a monthly column for our new website and you can write about anything you like”, said Tom the producer on the other end of the phone.
That's a bit like putting a microphone to someone’s face with the comment “say something” - it can leave a person struck dumb with the infinite possibilities available.
Well, rants are what come to mind first, and I have many but I'll save them until next year. I'll start with something that may be a little more useful.
I've gained quite a lot of travel experience over the years so here are some of the things I've remembered and learnt - the tips and tricks I wish I’d known before I left. This is the wisdom I’ve gained based on first-hand experiences and predicaments.
I would generally describe the extended bike journey as an independent overland trip; it doesn’t become an adventure until an event occurs outside of my plans. That being said, I generally don't have much of a plan, just a destination. I do have a pretty good idea of what I don't want to experience. I don't want to be sitting at borders for ages, enduring fines and body searches; I don't want terminal break downs in uninhabited areas; I don't want hunger, dehydration, frost bite or heat exhaustion, and I certainly don't want to pay out hard earned travel money to rip-off merchants who prey on my desperate circumstances. Some bad experiences are unavoidable but there are certain steps that can prevent these from being regular occurrences.
So, in no particular order of importance what follows are my, and this is important, only my personal hard earned top tips. These top tips are may not necessarily be your top tips - they might not even be mine next week! Tips evolve based on needs, experiences, age and wisdom so my top, top tip would be:-
- Never take someone else’s tips as top. My experiences are based on solo, budget, overland motorcycle travel and may not work for people with companions, more money or less time.
- Garage preparation for me is a time of excitement and creativity; I’m almost in a meditational state. I refer to check lists as I locate luggage, spare parts and tools. A little ingenuity can result in a lot of satisfaction. I make a note of the tools I use as I prepare and taking those ones with me means I can repair, relocate and reinforce on the side of the road if I have to. Using my bike’s comprehensive tool kit during the preparation is a good way to see what is needed and what is not. Duct tape and cable ties are essentials in every walk of life I think, not just on the road. (I’ll leave the big hammer at home and hope I can find a rock when I need heavy impact!)
- The fake wallet. I keep the real valuables stashed and use a wallet with some local currency and a token amount of US dollars and Euros in it. A laminated copy of my driver’s license, some expired credit cards and a photo of a child helps make it more personal. To the opportunist it’s a good little steal, to the corrupt cop it’s all you have. It looks real and it sort of is - its loss may ruin my day but not my entire trip.
- The all encompassing bike cover is a good way to lower my profile. Particularly because I travel alone, it’s inevitable that the bike will have to be left unattended at times. Loaded bikes can be so intriguing and often attract a swarm of fiddlers. If they can’t see it, they won’t mess with it and thieves can’t simply pull a bag from under a bungee, it’s a delaying tactic. Sometimes on the road your stealth can hide your wealth.
- Spare keys. I hide them somewhere on the bike. So losing my ignition key need not be a major trauma, just a matter of unscrewing a side panel where the spare is hidden taped into the wiring loom. When I’ve done trips with friends we’ve carried each other’s spare keys. (I must give them back sometime!).
- As I begin to cram supplies for every eventuality into my panniers it’s important to remember they sell toothpaste and soap in other countries too. I don't need to take supplies to last the entire trip. I only take the t-shirt I am wearing when I leave as I’m bound to see one I want on the road and can add to my travel wardrobe on route. Equally, I can’t possibly foresee every problem; I can’t take a spare bike in my panniers. I wouldn't want to walk it, but these days the world is a small place and most spare parts can reach even secluded locations in 7 days via a courier, whilst I take a break and become a temporary local in a small town that others only pass through. Sometimes staying put is the most memorable part of the journey. Finally on the subject of spares and break downs, the further from civilization you find yourself the more ingenuity the locals are likely to have - fabrication, bodging and reinventing is a way of life beyond our OEM part number and year of manufacture culture.
- A few emergency meals and protein bars can help me get through that cold and miserable day when I don't find a restaurant, village grocer or make my desired destination. When this happens to me I wonder “is this the emergency I prepared for or will there be a bigger one later? Should I eat my supplies now or save them until death is imminent from starvation?” But at least I have the choice. Oh, and those squeezy plastic Marmite containers that suggest you stand them on their lids bloody leak if you do, particularly in hot countries with bumpy roads.
- The peace of mind gained from leaving with all visas intact is a wonderful thing but not always possible, so I try to know in advance where I will get my ongoing visas, the price, the currency I will need, and having letters of invitation (LoI’s) in place. It all helps to ease the bureaucratic process. I find that dealing in advance with these niggling distractions helps keep my mind in the moment, appreciating the journey as it occurs and not fretting about unknown documents that may be demanded by various foreign embassies in a country I haven’t even reached yet. Also, once my passport photos have been spat at me from the side of my High Street photo booth, I photocopy them onto photographic paper. Doubling then quadrupling the quantity I have, because you can’t have enough passport photos in the visa application process.
- I'm often asked what the most important thing I have in my panniers. The answer may sound flippant but it’s ‘space’. There will always be something else to carry once I’ve left home - food, souvenirs or an addition to my “thought-I-had-all-I-needed check list” - so a little gap in my packing can be a very useful place.
-It’s not a race! If you find you are behind your schedule, change your schedule, better to do all that an opportunity has to offer than to leave it in search of another opportunity. Opportunities, like lightening and rainbows are not daily occurrences, so when one comes along give it all the appreciation it deserves and recognise it for what it is, because it may be a while before one occurs again. The road is full of tempting diversions and none of them are in the wrong direction.
- Electronics are needy things - they have to be charged, protected, answered, programmed and general paid attention to. I try to bear in mind that people travelled long before any of this kind of thing was available. Look up, look around, take a map; spread it out on a restaurant table and it will attract company and you’ll find everyone has a suggestion and knows of an ‘idyllic’ place that the guide book doesn’t mention. Looking at a sat-nav or phone will mean the world passes by as you stare at the digital interpretation of where you are. These tools can isolate as well as liberate, I see them like a comfort blanket, a thumb to suck when I’m feeling down, not a cigarette pack that needs to come out of the pocket every time I stop. Travelling is hard, it’s not all the romantic endless road of nonstop excitement and encounters. Sometimes it’s just exhausting - another language I don't speak, another menu I can’t read, another noisy hotel I can’t sleep in, another scam set up for me to walk into. Those are the days to have a compassionate Skype call, escape and watch my favourite movie, because this time too will pass.
- Having just advised you put down the phone I'm now about to suggest you get a second one - a small, simple unlocked one that will stay charged for 2 weeks and accept a local sim card. Great for those local calls and no distraction, no roaming charges. That friendly accommodating person you met at the petrol station will be able to call you and you him if you need some emergency translation doing, and the bike shop can call you when they have your parts.
- I seem to have a mental block when it comes to learning languages, where others learn phrases I struggle and then mispronounce even single words. However the big 5 that are worth making the effort to learn are ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘sorry’ - those words are always going to help the day run smoother.
- Who are you doing this trip for? If it’s for envying Facebook statuses, likes, shares and retweets, then perhaps you need to reassess your objectives. If it’s to look, see, experience, learn and report back, inspire, enthuse, inform, encourage, then good for you. If you’ve done it you know how easy it is, if you haven’t, listen to those who have, not to those who haven’t. Instead of habitually looking at Facebook as soon as you have Wi-Fi, try putting your location name into Wikipedia and learn a little about where you have stopped first.
- When the preparation and research all becomes too daunting; when my travel budget is disappearing on insurance, visas, carnets, ferries, and other essentials before I have even left home; when my expenditure is equivalent to the price of an ‘all inclusive drinks by the pool package deal’ in the window of my local travel agents with its poster messages of tranquility and relaxation that I manically rush past with my mind on to-do lists, exchange rates and impending deadlines. That's when I take a look at the atlas. Seeing the mountain roads, the coastal twisties, the empty plains and the exotic cities, brings back the excitement, the apprehension of the challenges ahead, and ultimately the butterflies in my tummy. All of which reminds me that there is nothing I want to do more than travel overland independently on my bike into the vaguely researched, but mainly unexpected lands where the real adventure begins.
- I reserve the right to change these tips as I continue to travel and learn!!