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The end of the road . . . for now. January 18, 2010

Posted by marcusbest in Uncategorized.
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It was cold and dark when I arrived home at last. The small New Mexican town I live in was quiet; the smell of burning piñon wood filled the night and Christmas lights blinked silently. I pulled into my gravel driveway as if I was simply returning from running errands in town, as if the last sixteen months never happened. The dogs lazily greeted me, wet nosed and with tails wagging, as they always do. My roommate of 9 years was there to welcome me home, and we sat on the porch and shared a toast of some Brazilian liquor with an unpronounceable name given to him by a friend. The next morning I woke up in my own bed, I brushed my teeth with my electric toothbrush, made a pot of coffee, and realized that I would do the same the next day, and the day after that. I wouldn’t be putting on my helmet, wouldn’t be saying goodbye to anyone. I wouldn’t be turning down dirt roads looking for a flat place to pitch a tent. I was home at last. And as if to reinforce the idea that I’d be going nowhere anytime soon, one of the dogs chewed my ThermaRest to shreds.

I still haven’t unpacked from the trip. My aluminum sidecases are still neatly packed with all that was absolutely necessary. Each item earned it’s right to be carried so far, and whatever I didn’t need was discarded, sent home, or given away long ago. Now Jesse and all that she carried sits behind my house beneath six inches of snow. It seems odd how easy it has been to abandon all that was so familiar over the last sixteen months, the small routines that outlined each day, the smell of the gloves, the wind and the feel of the road. Though I often felt like I could keep traveling forever, some part of me was ready to be still, to step back and appreciate where I’ve been and where I am now.

I don’t have any grand revelations to report. No one insight into human nature that flip-flopped my world view, no cathartic experience that changed my life. But I did have a thousand tiny revelations, a thousand insights into human nature, some almost imperceptible, and it may take years for me to express what I’ve learned and determine how my experiences have changed me. I like to think that all the places I’ve been, the friends I’ve made, the people I’ve smiled at or waved to are all a part of me now, and I in some small way a part of them.

It’s daunting to think of all the people to whom I owe thanks for the success of this trip. I must start with Mike and my New Mexico family for supporting and encouraging me completely, for “holding down the fort” in my absence, and Mike, for taking care of so many details that made the trip go so smoothly (wire transfers, for example). To my parents and brothers and sister for their constant support, for allowing and encouraging me, both as a child and now, to explore and test my own limits.

Thanks to Bruce for all his help in preparing Jesse, for donating time and parts and refusing payment for any of it, and to Lloyd at Archuleta’s Machine Shop for the use of all the equipment. Thank you Jonah at Taos Mountain Outfitters for the sponsorship and support. Thanks to Robert at Bavarian Motorcycle Works in Grand Junction for housing me, feeding me, and solving a host of mechanical problems right at the start of the trip. Thanks to Altus and Brian at the G/S workshop in Cape Town for the advice and the help putting Jesse back together again. And to Mat and all the guys at BMW Boxer Toko in Holland for all your knowledge, help and hospitality. To Axel and Christina for organizing a nightmare of a parts shipment from Germany to Kyrgyzstan and then treating me like family during my time in Bavaria. To all the other adventurers whom I met along the way, some of them still on the road, who let me know that I wasn’t alone but part of a community: Grant Johnson, Greg Frazier, Kamil, Betzgi, Yiri, the Cooks, Demian, Eddie C., Alymkan, Tim, Davor, Dennis, Carl-Heinz, Jurgen, George Pink, Martin Munch, Billy and Trish, Micha and family, Mike and Masa, and Kamil and Iza for a great 2 weeks together. A huge thank you to Sammie, Darrell, and Sue in Cairo, not only for all the help with Jesse, but also for the excellent home cooked meals and for welcoming me into your home. Thank you, Laura, for the unforgettable time in Egypt. Thanks again to all the CouchSurfers who hosted me along the way, especially Greg and Delia and Catherine, who hosted me for around 2 weeks each. Some of my most memorable experiences were with CouchSurfers. Also thanks for the great Italian hospitality in Zambia, Simo and sons, and the American hospitality in Malawi, Paul and family. Thanks to the group of BMW riders who showed me genuine South African hospitality and a great time. Thanks to my European friends who showed me a Europe that I would never have seen otherwise: Magali, Catherine, Axel and Christina, Dennis, Elias and family, Rolph, Mat, Sijr, Bram and Barbara, Micha and Family, and Kate. Also to my New Mexico family for the much needed R&R in Rome and Viterbo.

Thanks also to members of ADVRider.com and HorizonsUnlimited.com who answered so many of my questions on so many subjects and offered support and encouragement all along the way. Thanks to the founders of ADVrider and Grant and Susan Johnson for providing such useful forums.

Thanks to all my friends back home for inspiration, support, and assistance in so many different ways. Also, thanks to Susan at CAA and Jerry Vestal for sorting out my taxes. And thanks to anyone who buys my photos to help pay for this trip and those to come.

I think of the hundreds of strangers who went out of their way to welcome me into their homes, to feed me, to give me directions or fuel, and I distinctly remember feeling like I was living off of the kindness of strangers and that I would be lost and hopeless without the consistent generosity shown to me throughout the world. So thank you to all of you who’s names I’ve forgotten or never knew.

And at last, thanks for being my audience, for listening to my stories and sharing my experience. For those of you in Taos, I’m planning a slideshow and photography exhibit within the next few months, and for those of you not in Taos, I’m working on getting my photos from the trip available on line, and soon you can buy them and others at MarcusBest.com

Until next time,
Marcus

Taos, New Mexico; Mile 46,020 November 22, 2009

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The circle is complete. 50 countries in 500 days. Stay tuned for a final entry in the coming weeks.

Snyder, Texas; mile 45,480 (KM 72,420) November 15, 2009

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Irish lobster.

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Simon checking his lobster traps, Connemara

Ireland was everything I had hoped it would be. I circled around the perimeter of most of the island, spending most of my time along the west coast. Though many of the most attractive parts of Ireland are overdeveloped and bustling with tourism, turning down an obscure one-lane country road is a quick escape from the tourist track and reveals the peaceful, welcoming, beautiful Ireland that I will remember. Connemara is my kind of place: untamed, on the edge of civilization, elemental, rugged, timeless. Other highlights include the windy drive around the Beara Peninsula, the fairy-tale forests of Kilarney, the eclectic pubs of Cork, and the music, food, and late nights in Dublin.

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Cork county, Ireland

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Beara Peninsula, Ireland

Because I found a significantly cheaper flight back to the U.S. for Jesse from Manchester, I ferried back to the UK and spent a few days in the Snowdonia region of Wales, which turned out to be one of my favorite spots in the UK. Fall was at its peak, and ancient forests crowded the valleys between majestic mountains; a beautiful place. Manchester itself turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Where I expected to see an industrial city dominated by smokestacks and warehouses, I found universities, museums, cafes, a thriving music scene, and a huge variety of international cuisine. After dropping Jesse off at the freight warehouse, I felt a bit lost, a bit of separation anxiety I suppose. The last few days, the last few weeks in Europe went by incredibly fast, as I guessed they would, and suddenly I found myself scrunched into a window seat, headed for New York City.

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Central Park, New York City

I had mixed feelings when I landed in New York. During my trip, I had determined that there’s no place I’d rather live than the United States, and my pride in my country has grown since I left 16 months ago. So I felt the great relief of coming home, punctuated by the solid thump of an entry stamp delivered by a smartly dressed United States immigrations officer, grey haired, dignified, and with a confident Brooklyn accent. But at the same time, I felt out of place, on the subway surrounded by people going about their daily lives, commuting to work, on the way to the park, going shopping. My jeans were stained with oil, faded, and threadbare. There was a frazzled hole torn in the right lower leg from the exhausting day in Cameroon when Jesse was up to her belly in sand and the starter wasn’t working. I had attempted unsuccessfully to kickstart the engine, tearing the hole in my jeans, and eventually collapsed under a scraggly bush by the side of the road, the only shade in sight. These jeans had stories to tell. Grand stories. I had stories to tell. The people around me sat and stood quietly, reading the paper, listening to MP3 players, dozing off, and toying with IPhones. I felt completely disconnected, distant, and foreign, as if I had just been transplanted to another world, yet I knew it was my world, the world from which I came and to which I have returned.

I spent a week in New York visiting old friends and soaking up the energy of the city, then off to Newark to pick up Jesse. With all papers in order and the crate opened and tossed aside, Jesse and I were reunited, and we said goodbye to the city and continued westward, stopping to visit Tim in Virginia, with whom I had traveled in Syria and Jordan.

A close call on the final stretch:

Somewhere on the interstate in West Virginia my front tire had a blowout. I was going about 70 mph, passing a car on my right, and with almost no warning, the tire went completely flat and the rim was grinding into the asphalt. I was preparing for impact with the highway, but Jesse wasn’t ready to hit the ground, and somehow we made it to the safety of the shoulder. After fixing the flat (one of my old patches covering a gash in the inner tube had failed), I continued west and, a few hours later, pulled into a rest stop for a break. When I tried to start the bike again, I discovered that the battery was dead and the charging system had failed. While considering what in the world I would do to solve the problem, up walked Craig, who had driven by and seen me on the side of the road after I had repaired my flat tire and now could see that I needed help. He had just purchased a motorbike on the east coast and he and his wife Julie had picked it up and were returning home to Missouri. Incredibly, they had just enough space to fit me and Jesse into their panel van, along with Molly, their enormous, affectionate Italian mastiff. We loaded up and headed to my sister’s house in St. Louis, two states away. I was amazed at the level of hospitality and generosity I was shown in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and I often wondered if it would be the same in my home country, if people would go out of their way to help a scruffy stranded traveler. And before I could even pull out my AAA card, there they were to save the day. Thank you again, Craig and Julie.

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just enough room

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Julie, Molly, Jesse, and Craig

After being dropped off at my sister’s house, I contacted the owner of the company that makes my specialized charging system (Motorrad Elektrik), and he graciously offered to overnight a replacement part to me at no charge (please forgive the pun). So a flat tire and a major mechanical problem resulted in two new friends, a new alternator rotor, and an extra day spent with my sister and her family. As Shakespeare says: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Now I’m back in my hometown of Snyder, Texas to spend time with my family before heading to Taos, my final destination, only a day’s drive away.

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Scurry County, Texas; land of cotton

Bandoran, Ireland; mile 41,470 (KM 66,740) October 13, 2009

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Hermann Lanz tractor; Aulendorf, Germany

near Bodensee, southern Germany

Ralph and his father restored this beauty, and Ralph gave me and Elias a tour of the countryside around Aulendorf at 10 miles per hour. I enjoyed pulling up to the local bar on a vintage tractor. A few months earlier, I had hiked up the Lion’s Head overlooking Cape Town with Ralph and Elias. I enjoy seeing friends on multiple continents.

Elias and daughter Lilly

Elias and daughter Lilly

In Cape Town, Elias graciously let me borrow his guitar, and I promised to bring it back to him in Germany. It was much needed company for a lonely traveler, and simply having it strapped on top of my luggage opened a few doors for me. At one nervous border crossing, between Burkina Faso and Mali, an immigration officer told me the commander wanted to have a word with me. I was led behind a makeshift border post where the young, shirtless “commander” sat on a cot smoking a cigarette and playing his rattly guitar. He had seen that I carried a guitar, and wanted to swap songs before I got back on the road. The guitar always got a warmer reception than the camera.

Historic stilted village; Lake Constance, Germany

Historic stilted village; Lake Constance, Germany

on the operating table

on the operating table

A week at a specialist BMW 2-valve shop in Holland had Jesse in great shape again. Mat Beekers at BMW Boxer Toko had a lot to teach me about my motorbike, and I wish I could’ve stayed as an apprentice for longer. His shop was the stuff of dreams- crates overflowing with old BMW parts, a garage packed with airhead G/Ses, engines and transmissions lined up on shelves, and guys with knowledge completely foreign to most official BMW mechanics. Thanks to Matt and Petra and all the guys at BMW Boxer Toko!

my old friend, Bram

my old friend, Bram

Years ago, I met Bram on Plaza Viejo in Havana. We got along instantly and traveled together in Cuba for a couple weeks. He probably thought he’d never see me again, but there I was, five years later, knocking on his door. Spending time with him and his fiance Barbara was one of the highlights of my stay in Europe. I wouldn’t have even gone to Antwerp if not to see Bram, and it’s a great city, full of life and history.

Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium

Micha, Anna, and family; Yaonde, Cameroon

Micha, Anna, and family; Yaonde, Cameroon

I met Michel, Anna, and their three children in Cameroon months ago. They invited me to stay with them in Devon, and I feel like I got to see some of the best parts of England during my stay. Micha and I hiked in the rolling hills of Dartmoor and the rocky northern coast of Devon. It’s easy to see why many English funnel down to this area for vacation.

Michel, the northern coast of Devon, England

Michel, the northern coast of Devon, England

low tide, north coast of Devon, England

low tide, north coast of Devon, England

The Royal Mile; Edinburgh, Scotland

The Royal Mile; Edinburgh, Scotland

I could live in Edinburgh. The past intertwines seamlessly with the present. The sometimes dark and bloody history of the city adds mystique to the cobbled streets and dark alleyways, but you’re never far from the warmth of a crowded pub, often with musicians crammed into a corner in the back.

Scottish highlands; Isle of Skye

Scottish highlands; Isle of Skye

To be in the highlands on a motorcycle brought back the feeling of freedom that open spaces bring. I was reminded of Mongolia, the winding roads of Kyrgyzstan, and the barren vistas of Namibia. It’s hard to imagine that this road can’t go on forever. . . or can it?

2,000 year old stone house, Scottish highlands

2,000 year old stone house, Scottish highlands

Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland

Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland

In general, the hospitality that I’ve experienced all over the world has been greater than I ever would’ve imagined. All over Europe, people have been exceptionally open and accommodating. I am always glad to hear of similar experiences among Europeans who have traveled in the US. Often, when hearing of the scope of my trip, people give me discounts or waive entrance fees. The friendly Irish lads running The Ranch Caravan Park in Maybole, Scotland even let me pitch my tent for free, waiving the normal 10 pound fee.

I rode off the ferry to Ireland under blue skies and a warm sun. I’ll weave my way around the perimeter of the island, spending most of my remaining time in the southwest: Dingle, Kerry, Cork county. Then to Dublin, and a ferry back to England and on to Manchester, from where it is cheapest to fly Jesse and myself to New York. I bought my plane ticket this morning, and it’s the first concrete affirmation that my trip is actually, and quickly, coming to an end.

Stone Circle of Beltany, Ireland

Stone Circle of Beltany, Ireland

Bavaria, Germany; KM 62,000 September 12, 2009

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the route

the route

The transition from Spain to France was unexpected. In northern Spain, and most of the parts of Spain I visited, ancient and modern architecture are thoughtfully and tastefully integrated. Small Basque villages nestled in the Pyrenees are truly picturesque, and even larger cities have unique charm and style. The French towns I passed through were more industrial, more commercial, more homogeneous. Of course, there were exceptions, and the region of Provence and the edge of the French Alps were ideal for driving a motorcycle. The highlight of France for me, however, was the long weekend I spent with a French family near Bezier: Arial, Laurence, and their son Juleven. I was part of their family for a typical weekend of hiking, swimming in the river, an afternoon on the beach, a lazy walking tour of Bezier, games of petanque (a French lawn game), and delicious home-cooked meals in the evening. When I remember France, I remember my peaceful weekend with them.

Pont de Gard, Provence

Pont du Gard, Roman Aquaduct, 1st Century AD; Provence

French Riviera

French Riviera

I have often heard that Italians drive like maniacs, but I have a slightly different opinion. The truly maniacal drivers can be found in Africa, particularly behind the wheels of public buses in mountainous regions or in major cities. They drive as if they’re in a rally race, in rally cars.

Once in Burundi, I approached a steep left-hand uphill curve. As I neared the apex, a massive top-heavy tour bus came screaming around the corner from the other direction. When the driver saw me and the approaching hairpin turn, he cut the wheel sharply to stay in his lane. The bus began to lean to the outside, further and further, and by the time it was next to me, it seemed as if it would tip over, and then rear tires lost traction and began to slide. The rear of the bus narrowly missed the back of my motorcycle as it skidded by. Afterward, I had to pull over for ten minutes and let the rush of adrenaline pass before continuing. This was a crazy driver.

In Italy, and also in Cairo, the movement of traffic may seem chaotic at first, but once you’re in it and moving through it, it makes sense. Negotiating the narrow streets, weaving around cars, requires full attention, and I think this kind of driving develops great skill. Watching Italians gracefully zip through traffic on their motorcycles convinced me that in general, they are skilled drivers. They may be aggressive and may ignore most of the street rules, but I don’t think they’re maniacs.

Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre, Italy

St. Peter's Cathedral, Rome

St. Peter's Cathedral, Rome

By the time I reached Bavaria, the clattering in Jesse’s engine could no longer be ignored. I took her to a BMW mechanic, and he strongly recommended an immediate operation. With Jesse’s engine back together (new valves, seats, and guides), we’ll head west towards the Netherlands, then hopefully on to Scotland and Ireland before returning to the US.

German Alps, on the border with Austria

German Alps, on the border with Austria

Pamplona, Spain; KM 58,940 August 17, 2009

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My African dream has ended, and I wake to the sounds and smells of Andalucia. Crisp clean cotton sheets, olive oil, mopeds negotiating narrow cobblestone streets, espresso, and cool Mediterranean breezes. It´s another world, another chapter.

After a vicious sandstorm in Mauritania that stripped the paint from the windward side of Jesse´s frame, we crossed into Morocco. Following the coast northward, cool winds from the Atlantic kept the desert heat at bay, but we eventually had to turn inland. The change of temperature was so sudden that I felt like I had walked out of the air-conditioned United grocery store in Snyder, Texas and into the scorching summer heat. But the dessert heat of Morocco seemed to originate in the wind, as if someone was holding a hairdrier only a few inches from my face. The 115 degree heat (48 Celsius) was all-consuming, and it was difficult the think of anything but the quickest route back to the coast. We eventually made it to the picturesque and significantly cooler seaside town of Esouaira. The village was so clean, the supermarkets so stocked, and the food so varied and delicious that I felt like I had suddenly escaped Africa, similar to the transition from the central into the southern part of the continent and into South Africa. Over the next week, I weaved my way up through central Morocco and the Atlas mountains, particularly enjoying wandering through the old medinas of Marrakech, Fez, and Chefchouan.

I like old doors, and there are plenty of old doors in Morocco . . .

door; Esouaira, Morocco

door; Esouaira, Morocco

door; Essouira, Morocco

door; Essouira, Morocco

door; Essouira, Morocco

door; Essouira, Morocco

door; Chefchouan, Morocco

door; Chefchouan, Morocco

the cool blue medina of Chefchouan, Morocco

the cool blue medina of Chefchouan, Morocco

dyed sheepskins laid out to dry

dyed sheepskins laid out to dry

vats for dying leather; Fez, Morocco

vats for dying leather; Fez, Morocco

dying leather

dying leather

Jewish cemetery; Fez, Morocco

Jewish cemetery; Fez, Morocco

For much of West Africa, simply making it from point A to point B was a challenge. Finding food and fuel, driving for much of the day, then finding a place to sleep required all of my energy, my full attention. Traveling in Europe is a completely different experience. The roads are paved, there’s a gas station around every corner, and I don’t have to haggle before every purchase; life is easy. Also, I have met quite a few Europeans on this trip, and many of them have invited me to stay with them when I pass through Europe, so I feel like I’m on a lazy vacation visiting old friends. Another world, another chapter.

the Alhambra, overlooking Granada

the Alhambra, overlooking Granada

plaster wall; the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

plaster wall; the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

a sample of Gaudi's architecture; Park Guell, Barcelona

a sample of Gaudi's architecture; Park Guell, Barcelona

the Spanish Pyrenees

the Spanish Pyrenees

A few days in northern Spain was like being back home. The climate, the size and shape of the mountains, the cold clear lakes, the vegetation, and the smells remind me of the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico.

A noisy knock in the engine can sneak up on you. Because I am listening to the motor every day, a hardly audible click can turn into a clack, a ping, and then a knock without my noticing. I guess it’s a bit like watching children grow; you don’t notice the change as much if you’re with them every day. During my trip to Tierra del Fuego a few years ago, I ignored a loud clanging in the engine for too long, resulting in a snapped valve and a hole in the piston. I don’t want to make that mistake again, but if the engine requires a major overhaul, I would like to have it done in the motherland, Germany. Here in Pamplona, things worked out as they often do; a French motorcycle engineer stopped to ask about Jesse and my trip. His coworker at the Ducati shop knew the guru of classic BMWs in Pamplona, and within an hour, the guru was listening to the knocking that had worried me for so long. He confidently diagnosed the problem and said I should be able to make it to Germany without a problem. He guessed that the pistons had deformed slightly due to overheating, probably in the extreme heat of Mauritania and Morocco, where I began to notice the knocking. So I’ll soon cross into France, make a short loop through northern Italy, then continue northward towards Jesse’s birthplace.

Nouakchott, Mauritania; KM 57,360 July 29, 2009

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the route so far

the route so far

After a much needed rest and a few good meals in Niamey, I parted ways with Kamil and Iza; they went north directly to Mali, and I continued west into Burkina Faso, just in time to attend the weekly market in Gorom Gorom. The village is near the border of both Mali and Niger, and the market attracts merchants from far away and from many different tribes, classes, and ethnicities. As I watched carts pulled by donkeys and loaded with families and goods, all headed to Gorom Gorom, I felt like I had been transported to another era, a time when salt was literally worth its weight in gold. I remember one man in particular, dressed in clean sky blue cotton robe with fine stitching around the neck and chest. He wore a perfectly matching cylindrical cap and sat proudly holding the reigns at the front of his two-wheeled wagon. His wife sat behind, draped in darker blue, almost completely concealed, watching me closely. Her hair was long and black, looped and twisted, and bound with silver bands. Heavy silver coins hung from the braids and from her hears. Her husband grinned at me only slightly as they passed.

animal market, Gorom Gorom

animal market, Gorom Gorom

at the market, Gorom Gorom

at the market, Gorom Gorom

Gorom Gorom, Burkina Faso

Gorom Gorom, Burkina Faso

The two guys above are obviously from different classes or tribes (or both), but were good friends. Though they spoke not a word of english, they greeted me warmly, and I immediately felt at ease with them. We spent only a few moments together, in a comical attempt to communicate, but I won’t forget their smiles and kindness.

animal market, Gorom Gorom

animal market, Gorom Gorom

cliff dwellings, Dogon country, Mali

cliff dwellings, Dogon country, Mali

The Dogon country in Mali, known for its unique villages scattered along a massive escarpment, was a brief escape from the noise, heat and chaos of West Africa. It was a magical place, where the Tellem once lived in dwellings built high in the cliffs, replaced in the 14th century by the Dogon, who live at the base or on top of the escarpment. Hiking through crevasses in the escarpment, I was reminded of home, of the Caprock in Texas and of the Rio Grande gorge near Taos.

Dogon girl, Mali

Dogon girl, Mali


mud mosque and cliff dwellings, Dogon country

mud mosque and cliff dwellings, Dogon country

basket weaving, Dogon country

basket weaving, Dogon country

Dogon region, Mali

Dogon region, Mali

market day; Djenne, Mali

market day; Djenne, Mali

The Djenne market was very different from Gorom Gorom. This was chaos, pushing, feisty bargaining, aggressive touts, and for the first time in a while, other tourists. It came as a mild shock to see pasty white Frenchmen with fanny packs and sunhats and a scruffy American college kid sporting a frayed baseball cap.

river crossing, western Mali

river crossing, western Mali

I knew that in Mauritania I would hit tarmac that would stretch all the way to Europe, and that a dirt road would be hard to come by in the future, so I decided to take a minor road from Bamako, the capital of Mali, into Mauritania. This section turned out to be one of the most memorable of West Africa. The trail followed the train tracks, often crossing to one side and back to the other, through incredible landscapes and tiny villages. The trail was sometimes difficult; rocky, washed out or muddy, but easy roads are forgettable roads. At one point, I foolishly attempted to cross a long stretch of standing water, a pond really, and got hopelessly stuck with Jesse’s engine under water. Eventually, locals helped pull us out, and I spent the morning draining and pumping water out of the engine. Incredibly, or at least unexpectedly, she fired right up and we were on our way again. After over 500 kilometers, I was happy to finally roll onto asphalt, and I’ve spent the last couple days in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, resting and looking forward to the transition into Europe. Tomorrow: Morocco!

western Mali, near Kayes

western Mali, near Kayes

Niamey, Niger; KM 50,810 to KM 53,650 July 15, 2009

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To those who are anxious to hear that I’ve safely passed through Chad, no need to worry. Now the difficulties of that sandy route are just memories separated from the sensation of thirst and the urgency to reach the shade of a thorny tree to escape the white-hot sun.

I learned a lot in Chad. I’ve never liked riding in sand and have done my best to avoid it. Usually it’s a matter of crossing a sandy river bed or a sandy section of a dirt road. I’ve always been able to make it through, but it was always a struggle and never graceful. There was no avoiding the sand around lake Chad, because that’s all there is for hundreds of miles. Driving a motorcycle in sand is very much like skiing, when you must release control enough to allow gravity to pull you down the mountain, to let yourself float, to relax, to release but to do so confidently and with purpose. While riding you must know where you want to go and go there, almost willing the motorcycle to follow your intention, and when in doubt, when you’re in trouble, do the opposite of what your instincts demand: accelerate. The struggle to gain control results in complete loss of control. To let go and allow the bike to float across a dune is like skiing untouched powder.

The route was not obvious, and the trails we followed branched, split, wove around dunes and dried up lake beds, often connecting again, but we rarely knew for certain that we were on the right track. Driving on the track itself was impossible, as the sand was too soft, broken up and loosened by the passing of heavy trucks. So we drove offroad, alongside the winding tracks, all the while maintaining a sufficient speed to stay afloat on the sand and dodging clumps of dried grass, thorny trees, and washed out ravines. We started driving in the mornings around five o’clock and continued until noon or so, then rested in the shade until the mid-day heat subsided and continued in the afternoon.

My stomach was bloated with hot, yellow, sufurous water from village wells, but still I was thirsty. I drank till it hurt, then drank some more. As soon as I noticed a flat tire, my head instantly jerked to the horizon in search of a tree: shade from the blazing sun. The thought of not being able to find shade was terrifying. After days of driving through the desert, we were exhausted and hardly had the energy to celebrate when our tires finally touched the asphalt in Niger.

in the market; Maroua, Cameroon

in the market; Maroua, Cameroon

near Lake Chad

near Lake Chad

Chadian family

Chadian family

stuck

stuck

mud mosque; Agadez, Niger

mud mosque; Agadez, Niger

N’Djamena, Chad; KM 47,150 to KM 51,120 July 1, 2009

Posted by marcusbest in Uncategorized.
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I have a stubborn streak that is bound to get me into trouble some day. The road I took from Congo into Gabon was long and difficult- mud pits and sandy tracks that seem to go on forever. I had decided to drive the whole length in a day, and I set off early on a Sunday morning without breakfast. As I passed through villages, I asked if the border was open, thinking I might have to wait until a weekday to pass through, and I kept getting the same disconcerting answer. The president of Gabon had died a few days before, and apparently, the border was closed until the elections were complete, and that would take at least two weeks. Not good. The difficulties were mounting; the road got worse, the sun was beating down, only one out of five people I spoke to thought the border was open, and my starter was only working occasionally, meaning that if I stalled in the deep sand, I was stuck there until someone offered to help me push to solid ground to roll start the bike or I took it apart, found and fixed the electrical problem. As I continued, I couldn’t get rid of the thought that at the end of the day I might be turned away at the border and have to return along this same sandpit of a road. By four in the afternoon, I was exhausted. I hadn’t had a bite to eat all day and was short on water, but still I pressed on, struggling to keep Jesse upright in the sand. On a deep uphill section, we lost momentum, and the engine stalled. The starter wouldn’t work. Jesse has a kickstart, but it’s only for decoration. It has worked before, but never when I’ve needed it, and this day was no exception; after attempting to kickstart, resting, and attempting again, I collapsed under a nearby bush, soaked with sweat and out of water. A passerby asked if I needed help, and I gladly followed him to his house. I was given water and a bench in the shade, where I laid down and rested for a while. He and two of his friends helped me push Jesse uphill through the sand, but we only made it about 20 feet and had to stop to rest. I decided to give the starter another try, and to our surprise, it worked this time, and the engine roared to life again. I only had 30 kilometers to go, and I really thought I could make it, but as it began to get dark, I was forced to stop in a village, where a policeman allowed me to sleep in his guard shack for the night. After a bowl of rice and sardines, I immediately fell asleep to the sound of rain. The light rains made the soft sand a bit firmer, and driving the last 25 kilometers the next morning was much easier than the first 150. The Congolese sand ended and the perfect Gabonese asphalt began. The border crossing was one of the easiest yet, and later that evening, I quickly found the loose wire that had caused the electronic problem. Back in business.

Changing the world, one restaurant at a time; Gabon

Changing the world, one restaurant at a time

near Bamenda, Cameroon

near Bamenda, Cameroon

journal entry- June 13

I scratch my mosquito bites nervously in this malaria infested jungle. All I can do is lie here and sweat. The hum of the road is still in my head, and it blends with the chirps, buzzes, clicks, and whirrings of the night insects. A diesel truck lurches down a nearby road, creaking under massive loads of coal, cassava, and singing Congolese women. Their songs and laughter echo strangely through the jungle, coming first from the road, then separating from the coughing diesel and moving through the forest, just beyond the sounds of the insects. For a moment I am surrounded by singing, then the moment passes and the songs are down the road with the coal and the cassava and the sputtering diesel truck.

Mandara mountains, northern Cameroon

Mandara mountains, northern Cameroon

I stuffed myself in Yaonde, Cameroon, where the street food is tasty and cheap, got a visa for Chad and arranged to meet up with Kamil and Isabella, a Polish couple who are traveling by motorcycle from Singapore to Poland via Cape Town along a very similar route as my own. They have an excellent website which they update more regularly than I do mine, so you may want to have a look:

http://www.singapore2poland.com

We met up in the north of Cameroon and continued through the Mandara mountains and across the border with Chad.

Kamil and Iza

Kamil and Iza

The roads of Gabon were cut through dense jungles of massive trees, vines, and vegetation. I stopped along the road and walked, squeezed, and hacked my way about 20 feet into the jungle and now have an even deeper respect and admiration for those early explorers of central Africa, not to mention the people who have lived and worked in these forests their entire lives. The steamy jungle gave way to more open landscapes in Cameroon and impressive mountains near the Nigerian border, covered with a soft blanket of green. As I dropped down into northern Cameroon, the air the air, though drier, heated up and the lush green countryside began to fade. The Mandara mountains are rough and rocky, and the flat landscape of Chad is transforming into desert. The transition over the last few days has been remarkable, and in a few more, Jesse will probably be up to her belly in the sands of the Tenere desert.

Koza, northern Cameroon

Koza, northern Cameroon

hungry hungry hippo

hungry hungry hippo

Monday market, Maroua, Cameroon

Monday market, Maroua, Cameroon

Our plans are to transit through a corner of Chad along a sandy road that is less traveled than the more direct route through Nigeria and continue in to Niger.

Until next time-
Marcus

side of a house, northern Cameroon

side of a house, northern Cameroon

Brazzaville, Congo; KM 42,270 to KM 47,150 June 12, 2009

Posted by marcusbest in Uncategorized.
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After picking up visas for DRC and Congo in Windhoek, I headed for Kaokaland, a remote area of northwest Namibia where local tribes maintain many of their traditional ways. Enormous piles of rust-colored rock rose from the plains, as if dumped there from a giant wheelbarrow. After stopping at Epupa falls, I crossed the Kunene River, which separates Namibia from Angola.

Epupa Falls, Namibia

Epupa Falls, Namibia

kids, southern Angola

kids, southern Angola

Angola was good to me. The distance I felt between myself and many of the locals in Namibia and South Africa instantly vanished, and I was welcomed into Angola with big smiles and plenty of engaging conversation. Luckily for me, Spanish is close enough to Portuguese that I can understand and be understood, and being able to communicate with the locals makes all the difference. The clock seemed to slow down a bit in Angola. Crumbling tile-roofed colonial homes, painted and repainted in soft pastel colors, line dusty avenues. Fishermen mend nets in the shade of their porches, listening to crackling radios with broken speakers. Angolans have a laid back confidence that put me at ease, and they are quick to share what little they have.

fisherman, Angola

fisherman, Angola

fishing boats, Angola

fishing boats, Angola

shipwreck, Angola

shipwreck, Angola

kids playing on the beach, Angola

kids playing on the beach, Angola

Unfortunately, the presence of so many foreign companies anxious to tap into Angola’s mineral wealth has caused prices to soar. A dingy budget hotel room in the capital would start at around $90, and a burger and fries costs $15. So even though I would’ve liked to stay longer, my budget pressed me onward from the arid south of Angola to the coast, then northward into the thick humid jungles along pitted and rutted orange dirt roads and across the border to DRC and the hectic capital, Kinshasa. A ferry ride across the Congo River put me in Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, which is surprisingly lazy and safe, very different from it’s neighbor across the river.

loading the ferry from Kinshasa to Brazzaville

loading the ferry from Kinshasa to Brazzaville

ferry passengers, DRC

ferry passengers, DRC

If you have a taste for game from the forests of Congo, the markets of Brazzaville may have just what you’re looking for. Among the odd edibles were fried caterpillar, nutria, some other large rodents, wild antelopes, and more.

smoked monkey

smoked monkey

How much would you pay for a roasted civet?

How much would you pay for a roasted civet?

journal entry, June 2- in my tent in an abandoned gravel pit, waiting for the rice to cook

Tonight we’ll be starting with a healthy gulp of Jamison (the last in the house) followed by a spoonful of peanut butter and a dash of Habanero Tabasco, a prelude to the entrée: organic baby zucchini, garlic and purple onion sauted in Namibian butter and Syrian olive oil, finished with a Habanero peanut sauce. Served with South African long grain rice.

Sounds exotic. I guess it is exotic in a way. Yes, I’m in a gravel pit on the side of the road in Angola, but it’s still just a meal cooked by a guy that’s ready to eat. So many of my days are filled with complete normalcy. Small problems to fix, decisions to make, eating, going about my business, sleeping. A book that I should be reading, a journal I should be writing in, a conversation that I should be paying closer attention to, an opportunity I shouldn’t be missing. The struggle against complacency is a daily challenge, no matter where I am. In many ways, life on the road is not so very different from life back home.

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