Am I comfortable being out of my own element?
The ability to enjoy environments and cultures different from what youre used to is probably the number 1 requirement for successfully riding in undeveloped countries. Outside of major cities, there may be few people who speak English or even road signs you can understand. An appreciation of native cultures and respect for local traditions and lifestyles also is essential.
The motorcycle allows us to experience a country instead of gawk at it. Bigger bikes also are a universal ice-breaker and sometimes attract crowds of local people who don’t see Westerners often. We try to be travelers and not tourists, which to us means showing respect and appreciation for the privilege of traveling in their turf. After all, we’re guests.
Generally, when language is a barrier, we communicate with smiles and gestures. As a woman, Im often more welcome in remote villages than the men in our riding groups. I can approach the children or women and sometimes give small gifts, such as chalkboards and chalk. This allows the villagers to feel more comfortable with a weird group or people who roared into town on large machines and wearing huge domes on their heads!
If youre uncomfortable with the thought of being the only Westerner around, or don’t like it when people crowd around and touch you, this may not be for you.
Is my health adequate?
You dont need to be young and have the strength of an ox to ride overseas (Im 55 and Lynn is 61). However, if you have a sensitive stomach, eat a special diet or have certain health needs, riding in an undeveloped country may be a challenge. Outside of major cities, you may be served native dishes with unidentifiable ingredients that could upset your system, plus you’ll see few health facilities.
When we rode in the highlands of North Vietnam, I often wasnt sure exactly what was in the meat dishes we were served. We were assured that it was never dog, which is a delicacy there, but…you never know. Generally, we had pho, or a noodle soup, for breakfast; a sandwich with French bread (delicious and made locally thanks to the countrys former French ownership) for lunch; and various cooked vegetable, tofu, meat and rice dishes for dinner.
When they exist, health facilities are typically primitive. So are the rare public toilets (always take toilet paper). However, when Lynn became ill in Laos capital city of Vientiane, I was able to get antibiotics for him at a local pharmacy. I told the pharmacist about Lynn’s symptoms and for $5, she gave me prescription medicine that might cost more than $100 in the U.S. And the fee for treating Rudy (now recovered from his heart attack) for a bee sting in a Laotian hospital was about $3.
To be on the safe side, all of us have purchased memberships in MedjetAssist, an international medical-evacuation service (www.medjetassistance.com). In case of a serious injury or illness, we will be evacuated to good medical facilities and then brought home. For a family, the cost is about $325 annually.
Am I tolerant of adversity?
You may encounter muddy or primitive roads that only have what we jokingly call “minus-three-star hotels.” In the bathrooms of our hotels in North Vietnam, we sometimes had sinks without plumbing and squat toilets (a hole in the floor). At one hotel in Laos, all guests shared one bathroom. In it was a large plastic garbage can filled with cold water with a pitcher that doubled as both the shower and flusher for the squat toilet. It had no sink, so after brushing my teeth, I spat out the window onto the trees below. Still, we were grateful for the rooms, as it was getting too dark and cold in the mountains to travel on. The $3 per room price also was right!
In North Vietnam, most of the main roads were under construction. Since we were there during the rainy season, we were ankle deep in mud most of the time. If a bridge was under construction, we were detoured through the stream. All of us were cold and wet during most of this trip. Still, I learned to ride through streams and in mud. It was a wonderful experience.
Im not fearful about personal safety when riding overseas because we avoid countries that are considered dangerous for Westerners and usually plan and take our trips with friends. Traveling in a group tends to be safer than traveling alone. My most frightening experience remains that ride out of Baja on the TransAlp, followed by insanely crowded traffic in Hanoi.
When I ride overseas, I can fantasize about what it might have been like to be an explorer. Theres always something unique around the next corner. I view the hardships as part of the experience. Without them, I wouldnt get to have the adventure. As a rider, I gain a sense of intimacy with a country that isn’t possible for visitors using a car or bus to experience. I feel the sunshine or mist, smell the wood-burning fires and sometimes get to visit with dozens of smiling children who want to practice their English on me. I am infinitely richer and happier because of it.
Perri Capell is a freelance writer based in Boise, Idaho. She writes a column for WSJ.com and contributes to motorcycle magazines including Rider.