Saturday, June 25, 2011

Blanche DuBois would be proud.

The first two questions most people ask me when I tell them about our impending journey are, "Aren't you excited," and "Aren't you SCARED?"  My answer to this first is always a resounding, "YES!!!  I can't wait!"  To the second, my response is also, "yes."  I am trying to overcome a fear of the unknown dangers we may encounter during what will probably be the biggest adventure of my life.  Colin has spent a tremendous amount of energy researching and acquiring the appropriate gear, documentation, and information for us to successfully do this, and we have spent a lot of time with our noses in books or at the computer monitor to determine where to go, how to get there, and what to do.  We have calendars, daily, weekly, and master to-do lists to keep organized (thank you Colin for teaching me the importance of being organized; it doesn't come naturally to me as you know).  We will be as prepared as we can be for anything that comes our way.

Unfortunately, you cannot plan for every possibility.  For the monkey wrench that inevitably gets launched into every well-oiled machine (or well-planned journey), I've learned that you have to be willing to let go of control and be able to trust in the kindness of strangers.  People who are unfamiliar with international travel wonder how we communicate without speaking the local language.  When we were in southeast Asia, we used phrase books to learn the basic pleasantries and essentials and largely used gestures (and calculators for monetary transactions requiring bargaining!) in the instances when no one around spoke any English.  The handful of sticky predicaments we found ourselves in were largely relieved by strangers who recognized that we were in need (probably by the look of panic on my face) and stepped in to help.  I realize that not every person is trustworthy and that we do need to be on guard in many situations, at home and elsewhere, but I do know that we will be alright through our own preparedness and through the kindness of strangers.

All Work and No Play Makes...

We now have only five weeks to go before we start turning wheels and heading east, and I can't wait.  The fun part of preparing for this trip has been getting new bikes and all our new gear, reading about and researching cool places to see and dreaming of the fun we will have.  This week, however, hasn't contained any of that: this week has been all about how to move the bikes (and ourselves) and making them (and us) legal.  Yay.

One of the biggest issues that we have been working on is how to ship the bikes to Africa.  After much time on the phone and internet, Re has found a shipper that can get them there.  Originally, we hoped to be able to ship our bikes (and ourselves) out of somewhere on the east coast of the US.  We discovered that Delta has a direct flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, and South African Airlines has flights from DC and New York to Johannesburg and had hoped to be able to use one of these options.  Sadly, no.  It seems that since 9/11 the cargo regulations have changed, and almost everyone we spoke to (be they an airline representative or freight forwarder) declined to ship our bikes as they are considered, "personal effects".  Re also contacted several companies that specifically advertise shipping motorcycles as a part of their business and only found one that would even give us a quote.  Two tiny bikes that can be packed together in a 36x40x62 inch crate and weigh a total of approximately 500 pounds shipped to Johannesburg for the low, low price of only $8500!?!

We declined that offer and turned our attention north to Canada, to British Airways, and our new friend, Savio.  Savio gave us a quote of approximately $2000 to Cape Town, South Africa.  Cape Town has always been our preference over Johannesburg and we were overjoyed to discover that BA has a flight from London directly to Cape Town.  That price is only for airport to airport service, so we will have to deliver our bikes to the airport in Toronto and will have to sort out customs ourselves on the South Africa end.   Unfortunately, we can't book our freight shipment until we are within two weeks of departure, which means we have to book our flights and trust that everything will work out.

Oh, and the bikes have to be crated.  One problem solved, one new problem.  Now we have to figure out how to either crate the bikes at a relative's house in the US and get them to Toronto or how to crate them in Toronto after we ride them there.  After more phone calls we found a crating company in Toronto who can build us a crate, but we would still have to partially disassemble the bikes, load them in the crate and deliver the 500 pound crate to the airport.  Sigh.

The other project for the week was securing Carnet de Passages en Duane for the bikes.  Carnet is like a passport for the bikes that is required by some of the countries that we will visit.  The function of Carnet is that "(i)t offers a guarantee to a foreign government that the vehicle identified in the Carnet, if granted temporary importation status, will be removed from the country within the time limit imposed by the respective jurisdiction.  In the event that the vehicle is not removed within the imposed time frame, the country may claim from the Carnet issuer all duties and taxes that would be required to permanently import the vehicle to that country."

In order to have Carnet issued, you must supply proof of ownership, photos of the vehicles, passport photos, copies of the owner's passport, and an application to the issuing organization.  Here in North America, the Canadian Automobile Association is the exclusive organization that issues Carnet.  Suzanne Danis is the person in charge of issuing Carnet at the CAA and has been extremely helpful in assisting us with the process and answering all of our questions.  We were able to send all of our documents and complete most of our communication by email.

Carnet is an expensive document to acquire for two reasons.  It costs $650 per bike to have it issued and you must either deposit a large sum of money with the issuer or purchase an indemnity policy in order to cover the cost of the taxes and penalties that the issuer would be responsible for if you did not remove your vehicle from the country you were visiting.  The amount of money you must deposit is a multiple of the vehicle's value, and the multiple depends on which countries you are visiting. (it can be as much as 3 times the value of the vehicle).  We will have to deposit $5000 for each bike or we could buy an indemnity policy (which is also based on the value of the vehicle) for an additional $550 each.  The cost of Carnet is another reason we chose the Symbas- their low cost translates into a smaller amount of money we have to deposit.  (I've read stories of people remortgaging their homes in order to put up the deposit.)  We decided on the cash deposit route and to mail a cashier's check but, just to make life more interesting, the Canadian Postal Service is currently having a nationwide strike.  Sigh.  So that leaves us using an international wire transfer, which would be easy if  the nearest branch of our credit union wasn't over 300 miles away.  Hopefully that will get taken care of this week.

On the plus side, the sun is finally out in Portland this weekend.  I'm going riding today and we're headed for the beach tomorrow!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Locks and Camouflage

One of the questions we frequently hear is how are we going to keep our stuff safe while on the road.  We'll be carrying money, electronic goodies, and everything else we will need for a year on our shiny new bikes and considering the poverty of some areas we will be traveling through (like Missouri!) it is a concern.  Judging by the amount of discussion on this subject on ADVRider and HUBB, it's a concern for others, as well.  Our first line of defense is common sense.  We'll try to blend in as much as two Americans can wherever we are, no flashy jewelry, no $20K bikes, no big wads of cash, and we'll keep our cameras in our pockets whenever we aren't taking pictures.

Pacsafe, "alarmed" cable, and padlocks
Our second line of defense will be an increasingly ridiculous number of locks.  We will each carry a cable lock for our bikes which, while not impenetrable, will hopefully discourage opportunistic thieves.  We also have two padlocks on each of our Pelican topcases, fortunately keyed alike to save one place on the keyring.  Then we have Pacsafe stainless steel wire mesh bags to go over our Ortlieb duffels, each locks with another padlock.  Finally, we have a cable lock with a built-in alarm to wrap over and through our luggage (that, of course, has another key) that will screech LOUDLY if the cable is cut or the alarm is tampered with.

"Custom made" bike cover.  Pretty, huh?
Our other strategy is camouflage, which will hopefully help us blend in as much as possible.  We can't do much about our appearance, we both refuse to compromise on our safety gear.  The bikes, however, can blend in a little better.  One of the tips that we frequently heard is to keep your bike covered when you are away from it.  People won't be tempted to steal or mess with what they can't see.  This is probably more of an issue when you are riding the latest whiz-bang Teutonic bike that is three times the size (and twenty or thirty times the money) of anything the locals are riding, but good advice nonetheless.  After looking at the commercially available bike covers, I don't really understand how they don't just scream "Hey, expensive foreign bike here!"  When your bike cover costs more than a month's salary for the average local, it's not exactly good camouflage.  We decided to go with the ubiquitous blue tarp with a length of parachute cord run through the grommets as a drawstring.  All that beauty for only $9!

Re and her craft project
Our other bit of camouflage covers our bags while we are riding or parked.  Little bikes like ours are the beasts of burden in many of the countries we will be visiting.  On our last trip, we saw everything from pigs and ducks to giant flatscreen TVs to families of five being slowly but reliably moved down the road on small motorbikes.  But we never saw anyone carrying bags like ours.  A quick trip to the recycled materials store turned up a burlap coffee sack and a another piece of burlap with a return address of Kathmandu written on it.  A little cutting and stitching and we now have two bag covers for the princely sum of $4.

Please don't get the impression that we are overly concerned with our safety on this trip.  We found the overwhelming majority of people we met on our last trip to be honest, friendly, and extremely helpful.  That said, there are people everywhere who have bad intentions or are desperate to survive and see Westerners as wealthy and easy targets.  It is humbling to realize the vast majority of the world can't even imagine having the financial ability to visit another country, much less take their own motorbikes with them.  We just want to minimize the chances of running into trouble by taking some reasonable precautions and removing the temptation.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

You give me (yellow) fever

Heart of a lion in this one, eh?
On Tuesday, Colin and I went to the ominously named, Infectious Diseases clinic. Not to worry, we were there for prophylactic vaccinations only! We now have added yellow fever, polio, and hepatitis A to the list of things we (and thus you, Mom) won't have to fret about. The doctor also wrote our prescriptions for malaria treatment and antibiotics to combat "Delhi belly," which apparently is now resistant to ciprofloxacin in India and should be treated with azithromycin for greater success. To think of all the things we've learned already, and we haven't even left the relative safety, comfort, and boredom of home! Colin, as you can see, is not a fan of injections. This was the second of four (he needed his last hepatitis B shot as well) shots, and he felt MUCH better after the nice nurse lady covered the holes in his flesh with "Garfield" band-aids (my arm felt better from the flamingo and tropical fish on my adhesive dots). Our first aid kit and pre-departure health preparations are now complete.

Rebekah and her sister looking foxy, circa 1975
 We also now have all of our riding gear for the trip. Colin mentioned our riding suits and magic helmets in a previous post, but I don't know if you all truly appreciate them for the beautiful garments they are. Yes, they will protect our epidermis from scrape-y pavement and the rain, but......they match. When we were getting ready to place the order and deciding on colors, Colin strongly suggested that tan would be the most practical color for riding in the temperatures we are likely to encounter. Tan was the hue he selected and talked me into ordering the same. I secretly think it's because he wants us to be like those couples you see wearing matching satin baseball jackets or the "I'm with him" and "I'm with her" t-shirts. They are over-suits, so they're rather voluminous, and they're armored for added protection (and heightened sex appeal), but when I look at ourselves in the mirror, I am sadly reminded of a photograph of my sister and me wearing identical, shiny, red snowsuits and red galoshes. Our bikes, riding suits and boots match, but at least our helmets are different shades of gray!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

It's all got to fit in less than 160 liters of space

Several people have asked what are we taking with us and how do you fit everything on those little bikes?  After we decided to go with the Symbas we realized that everything we took with us had to be essential and (hopefully) be multipurpose.  After our backpacking trip through SE Asia a few years ago we knew that we can travel pretty lightly but traveling on the bikes poses some different challenges.  On our last trip my pack was 85L and Re's was 70L, which compares favorably to our current 83L each on the bikes.  On this trip, however, we are taking camping gear and tools and spares for the bikes (and a computer and video equipment).
Both Yampa bags are in this compression sack
The decision to camp was motivated partly by cheapness (it is usually cheaper to camp that stay in a hotel in the US, Africa, and Australia) and partly by necessity.  There may be days that we simply can't make it to the next town or village before sunset.  One bit of advice that we will adhere to is to never ride after dark in many of the countries in which we will be traveling.  The roads are dangerous enough during the daytime and we have read too many reports of accidents at night.  So camping will give us the flexibility to stop when and wherever it is necessary.  The drawback to camping is the gear that we will need to carry.  I spent many an hour researching compact and lightweight equipment and feel that we have come up with a good set-up.  We decided on Big Agnes Yampa bags and Air Core sleeping pads.  They are warm weather bags and most of the places we will be should be fairly warm, but we also went with silk bag liners for a few extra degrees and can break out the Smartwool base layers if it's really cold.  The Yampas will both fit in a single compression sack and can be compressed to only about 13x7 inches and the Air Cores are each about 9x5 inches.  The silk liners are about 4x2 inches and can double as a sleeping sack for hotels and hostels.  The Yampas are average about 2 pounds each and the Air Cores are 25 ounces each.  We went with the Mountain Hardware Drifter 2 tent for size, weight and waterproofness.  At about 5.5 pounds for the tent and footprint it isn't the lightest but it packs reasonably small and it can also just be pitched as a bivy.  A pair of Big Agnes Easy Chairs rounds out our campsite, they take a little getting used to but allow us to use our Air Core pads as a seating solution, too.  Due to the limited space on the bikes we decided against any kind of cooking equipment, hopefully we won't regret this!

One of the big shames of the developing world is bottled water.  Wherever we went in SE Asia we were saddened by the piles of water bottles stacked or floating everywhere.  We attempted to not be part of the problem on our last trip by taking Nalgene bottles and an MSR Sweetwater water purification system.  The MSR worked great for the first TWO WEEKS of our trip when the pump handle snapped.  What a piece of junk that we ended up carrying around for the next 9 months until we could return it.  Gotta love REI's return policy!  This time we are trying the First Need XL water purifier, it's an all mechanical purification system (no bad tasting drops!) that removes everything. The drawback to the system seems to be that the filter is only supposed to be good for 150 gallons, so we are taking a second filter.  We hope that this purifier, Nalgene bottles and two MSR 4L Dromedary bags will give us the ability to avoid bottled water as much as possible. 

All of our clothes for a year!
For clothing we brought some of our SE Asia trip clothing out of retirement and added a bunch of new stuff.  We will each be taking 2 pairs of long/convertible pants, a pair of shorts, 5 shirts, 5 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of underwear, sun hats, a lightweight fleece, a set of Smartwool microweight base layers, a lightweight rain jacket, a bathing suit, and a pair of sandals.  All except the sandals fit into a compression sack each that are approximately 10x10x8 inches.  We have a mix of long and short sleeve shirts and pants so we can be culturally sensitive when the need arises.  Bare knees and elbows aren't acceptable in many countries, especially at religious and cultural sights.

Looking and feeling sexy in her new gear!
We did spend a fair bit of money on new riding gear.  Re and I each have several riding jackets and pants, as well as leather suits, but none of them seemed appropriate for the weather and temperatures we anticipate.  After consulting the collected wisdom of ADVrider and HUBB we decided on the Aerostich Darien Light jackets and pants.  These seem to be the best combination of protection, hot weather performance and crash protection.  The drawback is that we look like spacemen (huge spacemen!) in them, not great for the "not looking like wealthy westerners" portion of the program (but I like my skin).  Re has suggested that we take every opportunity to roll around on the ground in them to remove that "fresh from the oven" look and smell.  We also went with new Nolan N90 helmets, both of our current helmets are a few years older and the Nolan's are modular helmets so we can flip up the chin bar at low speeds and at checkpoints.  They are also convenient as we both wear glasses. 

For riding footwear we looked at all kinds of waterproof motorcycle boots but couldn't find a pair that was comfortable for walking and hiking.  We decided to sacrifice a little protection at the altar of multipurposeness and comfort and went with Vasque Breeze GTX Goretex hiking boots.  They are waterproof, breathable, and will (hopefully) be good on and off the bikes. 

When we do the final packing I will be sure to snap a few pictures of all of our gear and how it packs. I also plan to do a post soon about what spares and tools we are packing (this one may just be for the bike nerds or if you're truly bored at work).

Friday, June 10, 2011

Getting and Outfitting the Bikes

We picked up our Symbas in the third week of May. We got them from Classic Scooter and Cycle here in Portland, Oregon. Justin and Rachelle hooked us up with a great price and seem like good people, too. Pedro (in the service department) also gave us some good info on maintenance and break-in. We recommend them for all your scootering (and Royal Enfield and Ural) needs.

The upside to buying vehicles in Oregon is that there is no sales tax, yay! The downside is that Oregon now makes you buy 4 years of registration with a new vehicle ($$) and also since we live in Multnomah County we get to pay an even higher registration fee to help fund urban bloat, boo! After a lengthy trip to the DMV (is there any other kind?) we are registered and legal. All that and we still have to wait 4-5 weeks to receive our titles in the mail. Hopefully this will not be too big of an issue but we need to have our titles in order to apply for Carnet, which apparently can take up to 7 weeks to be issued. When are we leaving?

We have been riding our bikes between the rain here in the lovely Northwest, trying to get break-in miles on them before we head out. I was able to get the first oil changes done on them last week and also tightened up a bunch of fasteners. I knew from Dabinche's experiences and some of my own that vibration can loosen up fasteners, especially on single cylinder bikes, and sure enough there were a few that needed some snugging up. I had thought of safety wiring some of the critical fasteners before we leave, but I may just make it an every other day routine to check tightness once we are on the road. I also adjusted the clutches on the bikes and it made a huge difference to the smoothness of the shifting. The chains also seem to be stretching faster than I would like, also a known Symba issue, so I ordered a couple of new EK O-ring chains to install before we leave the US.

Another issue that we had to address was how to carry all of the crap that we will need for a trip of this length. We initially looked at soft waterproof sadllebags from Ortlieb and one of their waterproof duffels to go over the top of the saddlebags but didn't like the lack of lockable storage. Looking around on ADVRider and HUBB inspired the idea of mounting Pelican cases as lockable topcases and then throwing a waterproof duffel on top of that. It isn't ideal weight distribution, it will carry the weight a little higher than I would prefer, but it's the best we could come up with without having to fabricate saddlebag mounts. We went with the Pelican Storm iM2600s for the topcases and the large Ortlieb waterproof duffel strapped to the top. The topcase gives us 34L of lockable, waterproof storage and the duffel gives us an additional 49L of waterproof storage. We also decided to go with a Pacsafe bag protectors for the duffels, hopefully they will help prevent our stuff from “disappearing” while we are on the road.

We mounted the Pelicans to a couple of hard-to-find Carter Brothers rear racks. I'd like to say thanks to our friends on the Symforum for helping us track down the elusive second one from Scooters of Louisiana.

Fuel capacity is also a problem on the Symbas. 100 mpg sounds pretty good until you realize the fuel tank only holds 1 gallon. In many parts of the world (Eastern Oregon, for example) it may be more than 100 miles between gas stations. We looked at several different solutions but in the end decided on the simplest. We located a couple of stock front racks for the Symbas and will simply strap 1 gallon gas cans to them. It's not the prettiest or neatest solution but it will give some added weight to the front end to help balance out the giant pile of crap on the back and (hopefully) keep the front tire on the ground!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


So we're planning this trip and getting all the stuff we'll need to live for the next year and trying to make sure it will all fit in two Pelican hard cases and two duffel bags. At the same time, we're selling the things we don't or won't need and that won't easily fit in our next storage unit. While Colin outfits the motorbikes, I am attempting to find someone who will carry our unassuming, cute, little motorbikes across the Atlantic to somewhere that is not currently a State Department danger zone for less than my left tit (I'd rather pay cash, as I'm rather fond of them and would like to keep my almost matching pair).

One freight shipper asked why we don't just stow the bikes in the overhead bin on our plane. I thought it sounded like a perfectly reasonable solution, but alas, the airlines disagree. I am glad that Colin encouraged me to start on this project now, because it might take us a year and a half to row ourselves and the bikes to Cape Town (and one of us might not make it all the way, depending on how the food supply were to hold out...). This is a bigger challenge than I imagined it would be, but a way will be found! I just want to say, “Thank you,” to those responsible for the creation of the TSA and for the disruption of the airfreight industry.

You'll not see nothing like the mighty Sym(ba)

The key to the trip is in the bikes we would be riding. Our original plan involved riding two-up on one motorcycle, but this arrangement has some potential problems – chief among them would be the limited carrying capacity and Re's difficulty in riding a bike big enough for the two of us if I were unable to.

So the obvious solution would be two motorcycles, a solution that many RTW riders use. The question then is, which bikes? All the advice says to take identical bikes, that way you only have to take one set of spare parts and can both ride each other's bike if necessary.  So we had to find bikes that were suitable for the short of leg (Re's inseam is only about 29").  We looked at a variety of smaller enduro-type bikes, such as the CRF230 and XT250, but finally found our answer in the mighty SYM Symba.

What is a Symba, you may ask? It is a modern version of the venerable Honda Cub, the best selling motor vehicle ever. More than 60 million Cubs have been produced and sold all over the world, and SYM manufactured Cubs for Honda in Taiwan for many years. When Honda shifted production of the Cub, SYM continued manufacturing a very similar bike known as the Wowow. The Wowow was then re-badged as the Symba for the North American market.

So why the Symba? For starters, since the rest of the world rides on very similar bikes, mechanics everywhere know how to work on them. Mechanically, they are very simple, having no electronics, no ABS, and no fuel injection – just good old-fashioned bikes. Parts are also easily available on all the continents we plan to travel, unlike some other popular RTW brands. They wear a standard and very popular (at least outside of the U.S.) size 2.5x17 tube and tire . Symbas are also small and lightweight, only 200 or so pounds, so it is easy to pick one up if it decides to take “a nap,” cheaper to ship, and easy to maneuver and park. They don't look expensive (and aren't, at $1999 apiece, brand new), and they look like what everyone else is riding, (hopefully) allowing us to blend in and not scream “wealthy westerner”. The low purchase price gives us more money for traveling and also means that the cost of Carnet de Passage is much more affordable (and leaves more money for beer). In addition, 100 miles per gallon is hard to beat!

We also chose the Symba because it seems like more of a challenge. More and more people go RTW on motorcycles, but usually do it on big, fast (expensive) bikes. If you have the time and the money you can go RTW in a couple of months, blasting your way through smaller countries in a day's time (border crossings allowing). We like that our Symbas will enforce a slower pace; we aim to average about 35mph overall. On our recent trip in SE Asia, we rented small bikes and rode through the countryside several times and really came to appreciate the ability to enjoy the scenery that riding at a slower pace allows. It was quite a change from the way we normally tour in the US- I've always been the type who looks at a route as a challenge to see how fast we can get there.

We also have to acknowledge Nate thePostman and Dabinche for their inspiration, two other riders who showed what you can do on underbones if you really are crazy, err I mean dedicated!  You can read about their adventures by following the links.

More soon about buying the bikes, breaking them in and fitting enough luggage capacity to keep us clothed and comfortable for the journey. 

Oh, and about the name of our blog... An underbone is a type of small motorcycle with a “step-through” configuration similar to that of a scooter but with the powertrain of a motorcycle. A Symba is an underbone. Plus it also sounds vaguely dirty.

And so the insanity begins...

In December of 2010, I floated the idea of riding around the world on motorcycles past Re. Fun, excitement, the open road, oh and crooked border agents, rain and stifling heat, and "It's gonna cost how much?!?"  After some discussion and basic research, we decided that it was a dumb idea ("It's gonna cost how much?!?" and "What the hell is Carnet?"and "Monsoon season starts when?"). Instead, we would backpack India and SE Asia for a while, and then stay to teach English for a year or two wherever we liked the most. While this plan had merit, it just didn't resonate with either of us. No other plan really had the excitement and challenge, or the potentially epic nature of a motorcycle trip around the world. So in the beginning of May we came back to the idea of a motorcycle trip but with a twist.  This really only gave us about 13 weeks to plan the trip and get everything together.  Over the next several weeks we hope to give everyone a peek inside what it will take to get this show on the road.

By way of introduction, we are Colin and Rebekah (or just Re). Beginning in August 2011, we are going to take a 12- to 14- month motorcycle trip around the world. Some of you may remember us from our previous (non-biking) adventures in SE Asia in 2009-2010. If you'd like to read about our previous exploits, you can do so at You can also follow along with our photos and videos at

Our trip will include the U.S., Africa, SE Asia, and perhaps Australia (depending on time, funds and inclination). We are in the process of gearing up and paring down, since everything that we aren't carrying with us will need to go into storage while we are gone. I (Colin) will be adding several posts soon detailing the gearing up process and bike preparation. Re will be adding the less technical (more entertaining) posts. We figure that this format will allow people to easily read about what interests them the most.

More on the bikes in the next post