As you recover from the tensions of the US presidential election and begin to think about heading off on a nice long ride again, here are a few things I have learned over the past 50 years of riding in weird and wonderful places that may be useful to you.
Thanks but no thanks
Truck drivers will often be kind enough to signal to a motorcyclist behind them that the road is clear to overtake. The trouble is that in different countries they use different signals. They may put on the blinkers near the centre of the road, or near the edge. They may also be signaling an actual turn, even though you can’t see a road for them to turn into. That’s especially likely if the blinkers stay on; if it’s just a flash or two then it’s more likely they are telling you the road is clear. But it’s best not to trust this friendly gesture.
Stay in the light
Avoid riding at night. There are many places where drivers switch their lights off “to save the battery/light globes” and are therefore effectively invisible. It is not unusual to find lines of rocks across the road, put there to warn of a broken-down vehicle and not removed when the vehicle was (India) or bridges may simply be missing (Turkey). It can also be difficult to tell whether that truck is heading for you or safely in its lane, and it is easy to miss road signs.
Get back, get back
Don’t overtake unnecessarily. Overtaking is inherently dangerous, and it becomes even more so if you’re likely to want to stop to admire the view or photograph it. Slamming on the brakes immediately after overtaking is not only poor road manners, it can be lethal if the vehicle behind you can’t stop in time. Not all drivers have good reflexes. Stay aware of the road that is coming up in front of that truck or bus that’s holding you up, too. There may be a T intersection or a turnoff that will require you to slow down. It’s better to relax as you ride and let the slowpoke go when next you stop to check out the view. You’re not in a hurry. You aren’t on your way to work.
Do not ever try to run a roadblock. Even if the police or army don’t have scissor road spikes deployed, they have radio and probably a chase vehicle. They also have guns. This might seem like an unnecessary warning, but I have encountered one bloke who tried to be smart in Morocco and ended up with abrasions, torn tires, bent rims and a sizeable fine.
Learn to spell
Lots of fellow riders will advise you to learn a few words of the local language. That’s good advice, but take it a little further and learn what some of the words look like, as well. I memorized the Thai spelling of ‘hotel’, for instance, which is pronounced something like ‘rongraeme’ and spelt ‘โรงแรม’. I anglicised that to ‘Tsnausu’ to make it easier to remember. Finding somewhere to sleep will be much easier if you can recognise that word. By the way ‘bar’ is pronounced ‘bar’ and spelt ‘บาร์’ in Thai. In Japanese, ‘hotel’ is pronounced ‘hoteru’ in the usual Japanese adaptation of non-Japanese words and will be spelt ホーテル in katakana, as usual for such borrowings. Prepare a little notebook with these kinds of words.
On our rtw ride, my friend Charlie and I had safari suits made in Thailand. They were made from some synthetic material which did not crease, so when we pulled up a dozen kilometres or so before a border and changed into them they looked cool. They worked, too, taking us right out of the ‘backpacker’ category for border officials.
Generally speaking, don’t worry too much about the food, even in countries where hygiene is less than perfect. If you can acclimatize your gut bacteria slowly, you open up a much greater and more interesting range of foods to try. That doesn’t mean anything goes; don’t have ice in your drinks, for instance. If you do have a sensitive stomach, bread straight from the oven and salad vegetables you can wash with sterilized water from your water bottle are good healthy choices.
Stay well away
If you’re camping next to a dirt road in the Australian Outback or in any desert or savannah country, get well away from the track. Ideally you should set up camp near some rocks or a copse of trees or bushes. Many drivers will avoid using a track that is sandy, dusty or rocky and will drive alongside it. You will see the results of this just about everywhere in that kind of country. You never know just how far off the track someone is going to go.
Keep up the rubber
Don’t let your tires wear down too far. Change them earlier than you would at home. Extra rubber not only means better grip, it also means extra protection against punctures. And speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that punctures rarely come alone, especially with tube-type tires. It is remarkably easy to pinch the tube when replacing the tyre on the rim, and if you have found one object to make a hole in your tire there is a good chance that more of them will be lurking about.
In the morning before setting off, do all of those things that you know you should do before going for a ride at home, but that you never do. Check the operation of the bike’s controls, check bulbs (if you still have them) especially in the stop light and blinkers as well as tire pressures and ensure that nuts and bolts are secure. You will probably know which ones are likely to come loose, but be thorough. Something that would be a minor irritant at home could leave you stranded out in some underdeveloped country’s boonies.
Wrong becomes right
If you have been to a country where they ride on the opposite side of the road to your home country, be especially careful after you return home. Riding on the “wrong” side for a while will remove the innate awareness in your mind that it is, indeed, the wrong side. You will no longer automatically gravitate to the correct side. This is especially likely to be a problem if there is no other traffic… until that truck comes around the corner toward you on “your” side of the road.
Sounds of nature
Don’t listen to music as you ride. Listen to your bike and the world around you. Who knows what you might discover? In Australia, one of the greatest joys is hearing the bellbirds and one of the most useful noises is that cement truck behind you hitting the compression brakes before it runs over you.
Be thoughtful. If you’re going somewhere fairly remote – like sub-Saharan Africa, country India, Pakistan or South America, take one of the new instant photo cameras. They’re small, cheap and they will make you… well, instant… friends with kids when you hand them a photo of the two of you. I also carry kangaroo keyrings which have made me friends in places as different as Baja California and Norway.
Paranoia can pay off
Here’s a final tip that will possibly see me accused of paranoia. Don’t ask people in the street where the hotel or campsite is that you’re going to check into. You’re telling them where that nice, shiny and desirable motorcycle will be parked overnight.
(Photos The Bear)