Around The World Alone — On A Bicycle.



Ok. So you know I traveled around the world for three years alone—on a motorcycle. And I really didn’t see everything. There are still plenty of places waiting for my visit. Or at least I’d like to think so. Truth is, there are a lot of places I’m waiting to visit. But that’s besides the point.

I was in Ethiopia on my motorcycle sometimes in the Spring of 2008. On a desolate stretch of a dusty dirt road between Gondar, Ethiopia and the Sudan border, I ran into to bicyclists from Finland. Though our meeting was short, our time was rich. Sometimes connections are made in seconds, sometimes connections take years to be real. Jukka, then a 30 year old bicyclist with nearly 2 years traveling experience around the world, and I connected. Three years later he finally makes it to the United States and takes me up on my lifelong offer to put him up and share time here in Southern California. In August he and another world-riding Finnish bicyclist planeed to rendezvous in Southern California: here in Encinitas at my cottage by the ocean. Our time was rich again. And we shared stories, photos and great food and conversation. Before these two legends returned to their bicycling journey, I pulled them asisde in my studio for a one-of-a-kind podcast. In this hour-plus long interview I ask the hard questions. And I’m surprised, yet comforted by their answers.

Take the time to listen to Jukka and Lukas discuss traveling, motivation, being away from home and loneliness. I think the insight is inspirational.

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Check out their websites for further inspiration, too!

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Last week I was discussing an upcoming speaking engagement with a client when the topic transitioned to my presentation and how I could help my client with my speech to my real-life experiences on the road. The topic quickly folded into a subject that most people I speak with tend to share the same curiosity. They usually want to know if at any point during my travels if I felt that I was in danger or if I was afraid.

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People ask this question for many good reasons. But I think most feel that perhaps they would like to embark on some sort of adventure or travel, but they are afraid to take a chance; to risk their current state of being—their comfort zone. Understandably, their curiosity perhaps stems from wondering whether such fears are founded.

My usual response to these curious queries is, no I never felt in danger or fear for my life in my three years of solo travel on a motorcycle. But as my client probed further for insight into my travel adventures, he asked “What about dangerous roads or terrain, were you ever afraid in that way?”

I scratched my head, took a quick gander out the window and confided to him, that yes, I was afraid on a number of occasions.

To be sure, he knew that I crushed my leg on a muddy road in Bolivia during the trip. He knows that a bus roaring into my lane on a downhill turn on a dirt road in Ethiopia caused me to crash. And he certainly knows that a small taxi van pushed me off the road in Tanzania. But in each of these cases I wasn’t afraid. The crashes, for the most part, happened so fast that I had no time to think or react.

Then I started thinking. That’s when I recalled some scary episodes while riding at night, tense, white-knuckled and fearful that this night might be the last of my journey, that I might not make it to my destination before crashing—or worse. It’s never a good idea to ride at night anyway.

It’s funny, many of these episodes involved wet and rain conditions at night.

Like the time I was heading north toward Maceió in northern Brazil. I planned to arrive at this beautiful seaside city before sunset when the rain pelted me and slowed me down. Soaked and cold and with no visibility—no lines on the dark, wet and jet black tarmac. No street lights. And the headlight of my bike barely any use. The rain beaded on my visor and every 30 seconds I had to swipe the water off of it with my soppy wet glove.

As the minutes and hours clicked on, the rain made me wetter and wetter. My visibility so impaired that I had to strain, squint and slow to a crawl just to make sure I didn’t ride off the tarmac, because it was so dark and just blended into the landscape. Then I found myself winding through gentle rolling hills lined with sugar cane plantations.

On the road I had to be careful when rounding curves because trucks that carried harvested cane to ethanol processing plants would drop pieces of cane on the road. Like banana peels I’d often catch one— and my rear tire would slip and slide. My heart beat faster. I gripped the handlebars tighter.

These trucks would also appear out of nowhere. Sometimes a truck would seemingly magically appear out of the darkness of the tall sugar cane plants. Most of these trucks were carrying three trailers, each packed with cane. Most of the time only dim headlights shined on the road ahead. Barely visible I had to be careful because the could either hit me or because I couldn’t see them in the darkness, I might run into the back of them because the trucks were not fitted with reflectors or tail lights. That night was unforgettable and one of the most tiring rides of my entire three years. I was afraid and scared I might not make it.

Trying to make it to Iringa Tanzania from the border of Tanzania turned out to be another harrowing night. When tarmac becomes wet and the sun fades into night, the pavement fades again into the horizon and trying to see the difference between pavement and vast emptiness of desolate landscapes becomes the most important task of riding. The rain poured and even protected in the confines of my rain suit, I felt trapped and blind. The bright streams of lights from oncoming traffic would detract like a star filter through the drops of rain on my visor creating a massive blind-spot that would haunt me as I rode the twisty track. Drainage on African roads is nonexistent, so I would wade through two and three foot high flooded roads, once amazed at the thousands of frogs who sprayed off the wake of my front tire as I rode through. The sounds of the gurgling frogs actually drowned the noise of falling rain.

I was afraid then, too.

Because my memory was vivid from the time I crushed my leg in a slippery fall on muddy and slippery clay, the muddy dirt roads of South Africa, particularly near the Drakensburg scared me too. Like a slivering snake, to me there is nothing more frightening than lack of traction on wet clay. I can see no difference between it and ice—I think I would rather ride on ice. Mud? Please stay away.

At the beginning of my trip I was still haunted and spooked by the notion of bandits in Mexico. Caught in the dark and still 30 miles from the closest village. tense and stressed, and still unable to see through the dark forests of Michoacán, my heart beat fast every time a car came up from behind.

Even as fear tried to suffocate my spirit and crush my confidence in these incidences, I made it through. And with each incident I became a stronger foe to fear. And while fearlessness is unhealthy, balance and prudence is key; as is your attitude. The compromise you make with fear so that you don’t let it get the best of you and in turn, you don’t due anything stupid or intentional that could certainly upset your balance between strength and fear.

When it comes time for you to consider traveling, such as I did or to any of the places I traveled? There’s no reason to be afraid. There’s nothing to fear.

Two Years And Counting.

I started my journey two-years ago today. With an interruption from January to October in 2006 due to my broken leg mishap in Bolivia, I’ve been on the road for 15 months, visited 17 countries and logged 35,228 miles. It was originally a two year journey. And it was about now that I HAD dreamed I’d be returning home after traveling 50,000 miles and visiting 50 countries. I never dreamed it would take this long. Yet I remember an email from August or September 2005 from a reader I’d never met:

“[…] Allan, it seems that you are always in a hurry? What’s the hurry? Do you have a schedule? Take your time. Breathe. You’re doing this for a reason, and I’m sure it’s not to keep a schedule and rush through it. […]”

Dropped off Doc at the local BMW dealer today as with 36,978 miles it’s time for a major service. While my diligent effort in chain cleanliness and maintenance has paid off, it’s been more than 10,000 miles since Doc’s last major service in Santiago in January. Though on my second set of tires since then, the chain and sprockets look good.

I’ll change the fork oil, and run a complete diagnostic and BMW will do what they do to barely earn the huge prices paid for servcie in South America. But today I met Manoel Escorse, a fellow BMW rider with a K1100 RS. He speaks a bit of Spanish so conversation for me is easier than usual. He drives me back to the hotel and for the next couple days we have lunch, chopps (draft beers) and conversation. We even join a friend for a birthday party under the mooncast shadow of Cristo Redentor.

But two years. Wow. Eight months recuperating after surgery included. So cashing in a boatload of frequent flier miles, It turns out I will return to the States to be with a very special person. I’ll take care of some business, too. Notwithstanding filing some income taxes and other esoteric minutiae. But it will be nice to be with family and loved ones. Meanwhile, the local BMW dealer will hold my bike and I will return to continue the ride to Northeastern Brazil and the Amazon.

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H. Stern, the precious stones retailer and jeweler is everywhere in Rio. I got roped into a factory tour with the promise of a free Caiparinha!

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You would never see Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz share the same floor space in the US, would you?

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Manoel Escorse & Doc at Auto-Kraft BMW in Rio de Janeiro.

Rio de Janeiro

The beaches. The music. The fahvelas. The food. The friendly people. The shoeshine boys on the beach walks. The bikinis. The spirit.

Rio is gearing up for the Pan American Games. And Al Gore’s concert for awareness of global warming. I settle in to experience some of the usual sites, the architecture and culture, the food and the sunshine. With a better hotel that has secure garaged parking, I park Doc and experience Rio “na pe”, on foot. For the further out places, I take taxi’s, buses and white vans that cruise up and down the boulevards picking up people for a couple “reals”.

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You must take a trip to the Pão de Açúcar (sugar loaf/bread) at least one time your in Rio. A two station cable car whirs you up to the top of this signature mountain in Rio de Janeiro.

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The views are amazing. Rio looks fake from up here.

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Check out the football stadium on the beach. This is Copacabana beach.

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Another must see is “Cristo Redentor” up the mountain Corcovado. Now voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

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Even higher up the views get more unreal. That’s the Pão de Açúcar in the center of the picture where the cable cars go.

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PodCast #19 – Breaking Out of Bolivia: Welcome To Chile.

Podcast IconFinally after enduring a broken leg, badly sprained ankle and ligament strained and twisted knee, WorldRider, Allan Karl, finally takes the road out of Bolivia. From the largest and highest in altitude salt lake in the world, Allan takes a dirt road out of Bolivia. In search of better roads, Allan is quite suprised to learn that in this part of Chile the roads are more challenging yet the vistas and the isolate desolation taxes his riding skills and mental acuity. (Total Time: 26:28)

Podcast Breaking Out of Bolivia: Welcome To Chile – WorldRider PodCast #19 (Time: 26:28)

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Dust. Dirt and the Way to Vallegrande.

First Day Camping

Camping in a third world country always is an interesting proposition. You could be seemingly miles from anywhere and any population yet somehow someone shows up bringing a huge dose of curiosity. Last night while setting camp we were visited by three passersby and their eagerly aggressive and loud dogs. After a quick PodCast recording, I feel asleep. My senses awakened me twice in the middle of the night to the sound of footsteps. Nobody bothered us. Packing up the next morning a local campesino man, Marco, paid us a visit. Clad in worn sandals, a fading sombrero and sporting a machete and pack made of animal skin and fur, he spoke good Spanish in an area where perhaps most of the villagers speak Quechua — and indigenous language the ex-coca farmer and current president Evo Morales is requiring all school children to learn.

I’ve been in Bolivia for two weeks. And while questions of my origin and country are commonplace, the conversation never gets too heavy — that is, into issues of politics, religion or humanitarianism. But here I am stuck between two water crossings 50 miles from the closest town that might have one hotel, a mile outside a town that has no telephone, internet and where only a few privileged have electricity and Marco asks about the war in Iraq. I’m stuffing my tent back into its bag and he enquires as to what I might find to be a solution. This gets complicated with my poor but developing Spanish language skills. This question never came up in metropolitan Sucre, buthere in the middle of nowhere, Marco manages to blow my mind.

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Marco sports his machete.

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The dirty, dusty and sandy track to Vallegrande and Santa Cruz. And they have to live it every day.

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Gas stations are difficult to find. Little ladies sit in darkness surrounded by 55 gallon drums. Anyone got a light?

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The trucks on the road spew gravel, dust and sand. Getting behind one of these on a series of switchbacks taxes patience and concentration.

I managed the third water crossing unscathed and continued down the road. It was 7am. According to my calculations we had 52 miles until we hit the major paved road. But as I unfortunately learned five hours and 52 long miles later, this was simply the town that had the hotel. We still had another nearly 20 miles to go.

Did you read that? Verdad. We managed to track 52 miles in just over 5 hours. Making a good clip you’d surmise, huh? Well with every mile closer we moved toward pavement and Santa Cruz the road turned into fine sand and suffocating dust. We certainly moved faster than the trucks traveling this by way. But the aggressive, fearless and faceless drivers in cars would blast by leaving us in visually unpenetrable dust — and this says nothing for the grit in our teeth and the asphyxiation of our lungs.

The road climbed up and over, descending and ascending in and out of valleys. The agriculture was richer but the roads got tougher with increasingly looser sand that deepend between the truck and car tracks and piled up high on the shoulders. The switchback turns were worse. With deep and loose sand that played tricks, our tires just squirreled uncontrollably as we white knuckled around the turn. We beseeched our bikes didn’t slip and fall, or worse, fail to make the turn for fear of falling only to slip off the slide of cliffs usually hundreds of feet high.

To keep my bike upright meant intense concentration following a sure and steady line — intensely working hard to inhibit any potential target fixation on those huge dropping cliffs. But blazing cars would often leave me in a cloud of dust where I couldn’t see the road. I’d either have to stop or push on hoping i didn’t accidetally dive into a deeper pile of sand or run into a car coming the opposite direction. At one point I found myself climbing a steep sandy incline in a cloud of dusty. I couldn’t see anything. As the dust settled I found myself precariously close to a car; nearby was Jeremiah stopped and shaken. A lunatic rider had tried to pass the car I barely missed nearly running into Jeremiah.

The sun drove the temperature to nearly 100 degrees by 9am. Combined with the dust this heat dehydrated me at frequent intrevals. Fortunately I was carrying sufficient water. Last night’s sleep wasn’t adequate enough for the stamina and concentration for this type of riding. By the time we rode into Saipina – the place I thought the pavement would begin – I was exhausted. And upon learning we had another 20 miles of this I was heartbroken. Jeremiah eagerly downed a coke, a few pieces of bread and contemplated an empanada.

“Allan you’ve got to eat something,” he quipped.

“I’m too tired.” I moaned. Complained. And nearly cried. If it wasn’t bad enough to be faced with muddy roads on day one of my return to the road, tthis second day facing mile after mile of dust and varying depths of slippery and squirrely sand did me in. I was besides myself. With all the churches in this country I faced a willingness to convert and pray for the almighty pavement.

I downed half a coke and gave the other half to young boys who were oogling our bikes.

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Despite the dust, trucks and mental overhead negotiating a tough roud, the vistas are outstanding.

The vistas were stunning, for sure. We’d passed through red rock canyons that reminded me of Utah, dry hills with tall cactii reminiscent of the central highlands of the Sierra Madre outside Durango, Mexico and fertile irrigated valleys like Northern California. Vistas aside. The ride was so taxing it became nearly impossible to enjoy. At one point I got stuck behind a huge dust spewing truck that made it impossible to see while forcing me to slow to a crawl. I had to pass. This was a hard decision. Knowing the unpredictable mounds of sand that trace back and forth over these roads I’d risk plowing into a plile that could potentially washout my front tire and send me down for a sandy faceplant. But I had to get out of the dust. I pushed forward. Sure enough the sand got me. My bike squirreled back and forth like a sidewinder whisking through the desert. But I kept it up and quickly but treacherously passed the annoying truck and its wake of dust. But to these hands and legs and this fragile and fearful mind it felt for sure I’d fall. And if I did, the picture wouldn’t be pretty: imagine 18 wheels about as tall as my motorcycle churning down the dustry trail with my bike and body in tow.

When we got to the pavement I was in heaven — sort of. My tires were way under inflated for tarmac. Jeremiah rendined me that we had only 15 miles of pavement until the turn-off for Vallegrande — which would take us another 30 miles down a dusty, dirt road. It was 1:30pm — six and a half hours since we left camp this morning. We’d traveled about 70 miles.

Joy Ride Cafe – Sucre Bolivia: PodCast

Joyride PosterJust off the main Plaza and across from the Catedral in downtown Sucre a street is lined with cafés and bars. Whether mototravelers, backpackers or tourists on guided jaunts, if you stop in Sucre you will find yourself here. Perhaps the most popular among all groups – including locals – is Joy Ride Cafe. Founded in 2001 by Dutch-born Gert van der Meijden, Joy Ride is Sucre’s central meeting point for travelers. They offer mountain bike tours, paragliding, guide tours and more. Gert has been in Bolivia for more than seven years and as such is extremely familiar with Sucre and the entire country. I met with Gert several times over the two weeks I spent in Sucre and had the opportunity to interview him for a WorldRider PodCast edition. You can download the PodCast here or by click the icon. For those of you subscribing to my PodCasts in iTunes, it should be available for download.

Listen to the PodCast by clicking the PodCast logo below.

Meet Gert van der Meijden Joy Ride Cafe owner and motorcyclist.

Every night I stopped by Joy Ride Cafe the place was packed. A fine tuned bar and restaurant offering local recipes as well as those traditional “gringo” meals for the less adventurerous world diner. A very successful business with three levels, the first a traditional bar with a unique loft, the second a courtyard patio with natual lighting, and the top floor is a tony lounge where on certain days of the week travelers lounge in giant bean bag cheers sipping beer or exotic drinks to large screen feature films.

You’d think Gert had it all here. But I learnd is ready to take on a new challenge. Not that Bolivia doesn’t interest him anymore, but he’s ready to move on. That’s why he’s looking to sell Joy Ride Cafe. Though not officially on the market, he revealed his desires during our meetings. I’m sure some ambitious world traveler would find the prime real estate and very successful business an interesting proposition.

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The upstairs lounge at Joy Ride Cafe in Sucre, Bolivia.

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Going over GPS waypoints with Gert at Joy Ride Cafe.

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Downstairs bar at Joy Ride.

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PodCast – Bolivian Dinner Conversations

Check out the latest PodCast from WorldRider. This edition features an interview with a lovely local college student in Sucre and comments from my favorite restaurant in Sucre, El Chaqueno.

If you don’t speak or understand Spanish, just skip along to the second half. This PodCast weighs in at less then fifteen minutes.

Listen to the PodCast by clicking the PodCast logo below.

Cerveza Huari-1 El Chaqueno Wine-1

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WorldRider: What’s Goin’ On With Big Al?

Flying in from New York City for a weekend and PodCast interview is my special guest extraordinaire, Mr. Tim Amos. Tim checks in on my recovery, rehabilitation and plans to finish what I set out to do.

Please join Tim and I for a 20 minute update on WorldRider and more. You can listen/download the podcast here.

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To The Highest City In The World: Potosí, Bolivia.

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Pouring over maps, weather forecasts and intelligence culled from other travelers, internet sites and local people Jeremiah and I decide to make a break for the Salar de Uyuni, the highest and largest salt flat in the world. By taking this route we’ll have a chance to spend a day or two in Potosí, the highest city in the world (though there is a town in Tibet that’s higher), and once the richest city in the Americas due to its massive silver and mineral mines. This route would take us to the Salar and then we will head south into Argentina through Laguna Verde and ultimately allow us to relax in the hot springs of San Pedro de Atacama before heading down through the mountains to Mendoza then on to Santiago.

A solid plan, but it means blowing off the most dangerous road in the world.

The journey to Potosi could take anywhere from 8-10 hours we’re told depending on weather, number of stops and average speed. We get an early start and stopping toward the top of the rim of the crater that overlooks the city of La Paz I smell gas – petrol!!! And it’s not the first time. When I stopped in that small market in Peru on the way to Puno I had smelled it, but figured it was from a beat up old pickup parked next to me. Then I smelled it again when I pulled over to take photos of the snow covered road outside of Copacabana. And finally, the ferry captain had commented that he smelled Peruvian gas as we wheeled my bike off his dilapidated boat.

Llama Car

This time I would take no chances. It had to be something with my bike. I feared my gas tank leaking. But pulling over just outside La Paz and after negotiating to buy a handful of dishtowels from a street vendor, I soaked up a pool of gas that gathered under my seat near the intake and return hoses of my gas tank. It seems that the hoses weren’t snug and therefore not tight. A couple twists on the clamps with the screwdriver and we fired Doc back up. Taking the opportunity of this unplanned downtime, Jeremiah and I performed routine chain maintenance and checked tire pressure. The fix for my small gas leak was the easiest repair to date on my bike. But the whole ordeal robbed us of nearly two hours. We had to get to Potosí by twilight.

For the first couple hours we seemed to dodge the massive storms we could see surrounding us. Huge thunderheads, massive rain and bolts of lightening added the drama for the ride. But wherever the storm moved, the road appeared to move away form it. Lucky. Feeling confident and cruising at a good clip we passed this beat up mini-station wagon with llamas tied to the roof and stuffed in the back. Poor guys. I guess headed to higher elevation.

After a quick lunch in Ururu we were pelted by a massive hail storm complete with the ubiquitous golf-ball sized stones pouncing the pavement, our appendages and bikes. As the thunder shook the road and lightening bolts were littering the road ahead of us we make a prudent decision to turn around and wait for the storm to subside at a nearby gas station.

Ururu Hat Traffic Circle
Proud of the hats that define the heritage local indigenous people of Bolivia,
this sculpture greets travelers atop a traffic circle in Ururu, Bolivia

Hailstorm Ururu
Impossible to capture the massive hail stones on camera,
but use your imagination as we took shelter at this gas station.

Potosi Route Adobe Town
Tiny adobe village on the Road from Ururu to Potosí.
The red rocks bring back images of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona in the USA.

for the next 4-5 hours the rain played with us. On. Off. On harder. Off. Then pouring. Then hints of sunshine. Problem with rain like this it makes me very hesitant to stop to take photos. All my mind can think of is get me out of here. Riding through valleys and the altiplano we finally started climbing slowly. The terrain reminded me of northwestern Arizona and in parts like Southern Utah. Deep red rock canyons, and foliage starved rocky mountains. Passing remote villages at one point we come to a road block that turns out to be a toll. The rain is falling hard, it’s freezing and I can barely get my fingers nimble enough outside my gloves to pull a couple Boliviano coins out of my pocket to pay for the toll. Peering through an opening in the rotting wood structure the attendant with fingerless gloves exchanges a couple receipts for my coins and we move on.

The scenery is breathtaking and we finally ride into Potosí just at twilight. Success.