I met Arjan aka Normlas a few times on the road and if you ever wanted to meet a rider that is loving travel, he is the one you want to meet.
Buying his bike in the US and riding south for as long as it takes him with an open mind to travel and looking to meet as many local riders as he can along the way, a few lessons can be learned from his ride report
What made you pick the Americas for this adventure?
I looked at doing lots of different journeys including starting in NZ with my own bike and doing Asia to Europe and then Russia, as well as buying a bike in Europe and starting there.
I ended up choosing the Americas because it seemed like a good and easy start, it’s easy to buy a bike in the States, one language to learn for the whole continent, no pre-arranged visas required (except for Paraguay as I’ve just learned) and relatively easy to sell the bike in Chile when I finish.
I also thought that crossing the Darien gap would be a good turn around point if I wasn’t really enjoying it or if my back gave out, and also if I feel like continuing at the end, South America is a good place to ship from to a possible next destination. Maybe Asia, Europe or Africa??
You have a unique (to some) way of meeting people via WhatsApp groups, can you explain how that works, and how the groups have helped?
The Central and South American riders’ groups on WhatsApp are a fantastic way to get local help, insights, and info, a way to meet locals and interact with them on a personal level as well as save money because lots of the people you meet on there will invite you to stay in their homes for free and feed you or give you good advice on cheap accommodation.
You first get into these groups by meeting someone on the road that is a member, they will then forward your request to join to a group admin who then signs you up and you’re away.
They are mostly specific for a country and they will ask that you leave the group once you have left the country to make room for others to join.
They are generally called “MAI – country name”. Once you’re in and heading to another country just ask the group for a contact in that country’s group and they will give you a person to whom you can request to join the next group.
As you travel you post on the group where you are going and that allows people to give you advice on routes and accommodation and sometimes people who live there will contact you directly and invite you to stay at their place.
They call these places Motoposadas and you can also request info on Motoposadas in the area, this is usually done by asking “is there any support in area xxxxxx” – in Spanish of course, use google translator, it works great.
I have met so many great people on there and gotten so much help it is hard to explain, it is often a humbling experience that people with very little money and resources will make you so welcome and share everything they have just to be a part of your journey.
A journey which they all want to make and most of whom will never have the resources to do so, they enjoy living vicariously through your journey and really feel a part of your adventure – and they are!
I’ve even had people give me their bed and offer to sleep on the floor (thank you Torroloco from the infamous Bario 13 in Medellin).
It’s also important to always go back on the group and thank the people who have helped you publicly.
This way of travel has been an absolute highlight of my trip. It has also been a very humbling experience and it has changed me as a person to hopefully be more open, trusting and generous, I highly recommend it as a part of any moto-travelers journey through the Americas.
There are lots of examples of how well this system worked on my blog, some of the especially memorable ones were in Santa Ana Colombia (thank you Jose), Medellin Colombia (thank you Duvan) – (check out the night I had there jamming with my new friends here
We had a repeat performance a couple of nights later after many more beers, details on page 22 of my ride report), Estelle in Nicaragua (thank you Jose), the Barrancabermeja bikers group in Colombia, Merida Mexico (thank you Victor) and Salta Argentina where I am sitting right now typing this (thank you, Ruben and Federico).
I’m sorry for those stand-out people that I have forgotten in this short list!! It’s nice to thank the people that have helped you by offering to take them out for a meal, cook a meal or to buy them a treat, like a bottle of local alcohol or pastries/cake etc.
Aside from the WhatsApp groups I also used the ADVrider tent space map but there aren’t many entries South of the US border, but I’ve also met some great people through that including Stu In Baja, Dan (@mainecoons) and Andy in Ajijic and Garry in Mexico City – thanks so much guys!
Adult beverages can be seen in your ride report, can you give us a rating of how countries compare with their liquor production and your favorites
I do enjoy a wee tipple and since I am not a huge fan of beer and wine I tend to head for the local hard liquor.
A big part of my trip is to “try everything once” and trying the local booze is also a good way to discover more about the region, trying to find the real local moonshine type booze is also a great way to meet local people and sometimes to party on down with them!
I particularly like the Mescal in Mexico and it was fun buying it from the locals `cloak and dagger“ style in reused coke and water bottles.
Prices vary wildly but on the whole booze is much cheaper in the Americas than in NZ. At home, even the cheapest bottle of hard liquor will set you back about $20 USD and on my travels I have bought a liter of hard alcohol for as little as $1 or $2 USD, I think the cheapest I came across was the “liquor de Cana” or white rum from Mexico which is available everywhere, including at gas stations for around that price.
The Aquardiente from Colombia was probably one of the hardest to drink, it has a very strong Ouzo /licorice/aniseed flavor and it is hugely popular, if you want to party with the locals in Colombia then this is what you will be drinking straight from a shot glass in the evening on the front porch.
When you aren’t riding what did you do for a job?
I am a neuroscientist and have spent most of my life in academia. I spent the first 15 or so years doing research on brain injury in babies at various Universities and for the last ten years or so I worked for a NZ government research institute running a small research team discovering new psychoactive plant extracts.
So it’s been pretty varied but always brain related drug-discovery type work, I love science and it is completely part of my being.
You are one of the very few riders to try Ayahuasca on a ride south, how was that experience and would you recommend it to others?
Given my work, for the last ten years, I am inherently interested in psychoactives and I’ve actually lectured on the neuropharmacology of Ayahuasca many times, so for me, it was pretty high on the to-do list.
I wrote a very detailed description of the experience in my ride report and recommend that those who are interested look it up and have a read (page 29 using the default page size setting).
For me it was an excellent experience and I would happily do it again, but I was VERY well informed and took the time to choose a well-reviewed and highly experienced place to do it in – that is important.
I strongly believe in personal choice, everyone should have the right to do as they please as long as long as they don’t break rule #1 which to put it nicely is – “don’t bother anyone else” (we mostly express this rule as “don’t be a c**t”) – but you get the idea 😊
Hallucinogens can give a very powerful experience and I found the Ayahuasca experience to be more unpredictable and difficult to control mentally than others, it is very confronting.
If people choose to try this and they are not experienced in this kind of thing, I would recommend a small dose and just see how you go, you can always take more, don’t be bullied into a huge dose that might give you an experience that you don’t like and cannot escape from for 5-6 hours.
You can always take more if you want to go further, once it’s in – it’s in. As Hunter S. Thompson once said, “buy the ticket, take the ride”.
It is very important that you tell the shaman/guide about any pharmaceuticals or supplements that you are taking, there are some nasty and potentially fatal interactions for certain drugs, especially psychoactive drugs like anti-depressants, anti-neurodegeneratives, and anti-anxiety drugs, and even with some herbs and over the counter “supplements” (e.g. 5-HTP or any MAO inhibitors) – so tell them, but also be informed and do your own research, be careful and conservative.
I know you have a severe back injury, has that been an issue during the ride and how did you handle it on the road? Others might be in a similar predicament and think it is a big reason not to make that ride.
I blew my lower back disks back in 2011 during a very minor accident at work and subsequently had the worst five years of my life, mostly spent unable to move, in bed and on ridiculous amounts of opiate painkillers.
I ended up with a two-level spinal fusion (ALIF on L4-L5-S1) and another surgery a year later to insert a stint between L4 and L3.
I am in pain every day and it took a long time to learn how to live with that. I made a distinct choice not to be a patient anymore, one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life, to get off the painkillers and reclaim my life, with this trip being the lofty goal that I was aiming to be able to at least start.
I try and stretch daily, that helps, but I am in some degree of back pain pretty much all the time, the most useful thing I have found is a mantra I use; whenever it feels particularly bad, I say to myself “it’s not so bad”, regardless of how bad it is.
This stops me catastrophizing my back pain and falling back into the woe-is-me patient mode, which is easy to do.
Occasionally it does get too bad and I just have to take a day or two off, take some strong painkillers and just lie around in a good bed with a hot water bottle.
As a neuroscientist I probably understand chronic pain more than most – the problem with it is that basically, a nerve is a nerve.
For example, when you learn something new, you learn it best by repetition; an instrument or a language (or a behavior) or whatever.
The more you fire those nerves the stronger they get and the better they work. Unfortunately, it’s the same with pain, the more you fire the “back pain” nerves the stronger they get, the better they are at sending the pain message to your brain and the more sensitive they are to pain.
It’s a vicious circle for sufferers of chronic pain and hard to break out of. Chronic opiates just make it worse, it ends up being mostly a mental game, I went to a pain psychologist and that helped me enormously, but it also just took lots of willpower, training, rehab and putting up with lots of pain (still).
What is your current bike?
I’m on a well farkled 2008 Kawasaki KLR650 that I bought second hand in LA, the exact same bike I have at home, a capable beast that has done me very well on this trip, 50,000kms so far and counting.
Do you have a dream bike that isn’t your current bike – if you had an unlimited budget?
Not really, I’m not really all that bike-focused, it’s a tool and this one is the perfect tool for this job, for my budget and for me.
Where is your favorite country to ride and why, and which other two round out your top three
That’s a tough one, I loved Mexico and could easily spend a year just exploring that country, it’s so varied, friendly, safe, cheap, has GREAT food, history, and beautiful countryside.
Second would probably have to be a tie between Peru and Bolivia, both spectacular countries, and I love the third world feel, just makes the places more interesting and one of the reasons I’m not so big on countries like Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Panama – they are just too Western and developed for me.
Guatemala was great too, and the people in Colombia were probably the most welcoming and kind.
Is there one particular road or track that stands out above all the rest?
Another toughie – there’s been so many spectacular rides, I have to name a few….
The Nevis road in New Zealand’s South Island is an all-time favorite
Batopilas to La Fuerte in Copper Canyon Mexico, was awesome as was the road into Batopilas (page 7).
AN-1251 in Peru from near Huaraz across the Andes is spectacular (page 28)
From the Peruvian Andes to the Amazon and back (page 29)
The ride I did yesterday from Cafayate to Cachi Argentina along the gravel part of Ruta 40 and through to Salta was also spectacular (page 38).
A dream location to ride to that you have yet to visit?
I’ve been to South East Asia a bunch of times and love it there, especially; Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, I’d really like to tour it on my own bike, including India and Burma…….you gotta have dreams right?
Scariest moment on your travels?
Crossing Nicaragua right at the height of their civil unrest was crazy dangerous and scary, I was traveling with a couple of French bikers; Victor and Johan, and the three of us were repeatedly threatened with machetes, home-made bazookas, clubs, guns, and baseball bats by very angry crowds at many roadblocks on the day we crossed (page 16 and 17).
Most memorable day?
Probably the day we crossed Nicaragua – just crazy dangerous and exciting but also a huge high when we made it through safely (just). (page 16 and 17).
Do you think more people should travel and why?
I strongly believe in personal freedom and choice, people should do what they want as long as they don’t break rule #1.
If someone is reading this dreaming of doing a similar trip, then go for it, it’s not as hard or dangerous or expensive as you think, just go, you’ll be fine.
If it turns out it’s not for you, you’ll work that out pretty quickly, but give it a good go and don’t quit at the first hurdle.
If the worst comes to the worst you can just turn around and go home, or even simpler, park your bike at whatever airport, walk away and fly home.
It’s your trip and your life – be free. You also don’t really need a destination, just pick a direction and you can change your mind daily. It’s the freedom of that mindset and type of travel that I love.
The biggest lesson you will probably learn is that people are good everywhere, people care and are generous and interested all around the world.
Top 3 tips for a new rider?
1) Be tidy and organized, a bike is like a boat, everything has a place, decide on sensible places to put stuff depending on weight, how often you need them and what you need together with other things and put them back there! The holy grail is being able to get off your bike at the end of the day at your hotel or lodging and take everything you need to your room in one trip – not as easy as it sounds and it takes practice!
2) Smile, relax and don’t break rule #1 (see above) – begin every interaction with a smile and a handshake and the world is your oyster, people will be more helpful, difficult interactions will be less difficult and your whole trip will be better.
3) Pretend to not speak a word of Spanish at police stops and difficult customs people, they will find you too hard going and let you go through. But always keep smiling and just play “the idiot happy tourist”.
What does the word ‘adventure’ mean to you?
Freedom – to go where I want, when I want or to not go anywhere at all.
What is your one favorite photo ever from all your travels?
The most photogenic photo I think is probably the one of the mariachi band in Guanajuato Mexico with the light coming up from the street (page 8), but my favourite ones are the ones of the awesome people I have traveled with and met along the way, these are not in any way photogenic, just standard touristy picks, but they are special to me.
I also like photos that tell a story, or hint to a story, and the ones I’ve chosen for this interview include a few of those. I especially like the one of Buzz – a guy I met in Slab City USA who had just claimed himself a slab and had big dreams about what he was going to build on it – a real character.
Any countries you regret going to?
If I had known how truly dangerous Nicaragua was going to be, I probably would have tried to find a way around it by boat, it really was touch-and-go and could easily have gone horribly wrong. (page 16 and 17).
I have no idea 😊 and I like it like that, could be anywhere in the world, could be home, I am free.
Can you explain your inmate name?
Nope sorry, it’s a secret 😊
One last thought – be nice to cats !!
On the whole, companion animals are not treated as well in the Central and South America as they are in the Western world, I try and take the time to make at least one animal feel better every day.
I actually carry dry cat food with me and give it out whenever I come across a hungry looking moggie or dog. It makes my day better too.
For more interviews and a small look into the life of some inmates make sure you check out the Interview Series in the forum that has been running since 2007 – you can find it here