This is an excerpt from my new book, How To Ride A Bicycle 'Round The World.
When you first set out, you might find the freedom of the road disorienting. After all, you now have no one telling you what to do, where to be or how to act. You are in total charge of your life and when things go well you get all the credit. But when things turn sour that’s on you too. It’s a big responsibility that can take some getting used to. In fact, during the early adjustment stages, all that freedom might make you feel a bit adrift and purposeless like you’re just a bum on a bicycle. That’s why it’s important, in the beginning at least, for there to be a stabilizing influence in your life on the road; a link with your old reality, your community, friends and family back home.
Before the Internet, the mail, along with an occasional very expensive international phone call was about the only way to let people know that you were okay. A friend or family member would get a postcard from some far-away place, glance at the postmark and be reassured that you had been alive a month ago.
Today, you can have a real-time face-to-face conversation with the folks back home from just about anywhere in the world. Surprisingly, Asia is now as well, if not better, wired than the rest of the world. Nearly every hotel and cafe offers free WIFI. On a side trip to Annapurna Base Camp high in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, I video-chatted with my daughters from a teahouse five days from civilization at over 12,000 feet!
Writing a blog is a good way to stay in touch. It keeps everyone informed about your activities and whereabouts, plus, it lets others feel that they’re part of your adventure, too. When your trip ends you’ll be glad you have a record that includes those small, yet all-so-important details you might have otherwise forgotten.
There are any number of laptops and tablets that will work well. Often you’ll be able to charge the batteries at hotels or friendly coffee shops. But there will be stretches of days or even weeks when there’s no electricity and you will have to ration it carefully. That’s why I recommend buying the tablet or laptop with the longest battery life. I’m no techie but as far as I know, the iPad, at 10 hours, wins that trophy.
A smartphone is handy to have along, too. Because of their compactness you can keep one in your handlebar bag and employ its mapping functions. Of course using your smartphone on your domestic plan in some far-flung country would be prohibitively expensive. A friend who rode with me in Viet Nam ran up an $800 bill in one week using just the mapping feature. Luckily he was able to negotiate with his US carrier and got the cost substantially reduced.
A better strategy is to get your phone ‘unlocked’ while you’re still on your home turf. Then, when you enter a foreign country, head to a wireless provider and buy a local SIM card. It will usually run about $20 US for all the data you could ever use, plus, a big bucket of talk minutes. A word of caution: I’ve used many foreign wireless providers and most of them worked fine but there was one that just didn’t fill the bill. The connection kept breaking down, and since the alerts were in a foreign language, I had no idea how to correct the problem. I wound up throwing the offending carrier’s SIM card away and hooking up with a provider that I’d used in a couple of other countries, Vodafone.
You’ll want to have a digital camera along, too, and that, combined with your tablet and phone are going to need a lot of juice. Keeping all your electronics up and running can be a challenge. If you’re staying in hotels or hostels, there’s no problem but campgrounds are a different story. If you want a site with electricity you will have to pay more-often twice the cost of a site without it. I have solved the problem by generating my own electricity. I was lucky enough to be sponsored by the Goal Zero Company who furnished me with their Sherpa 50 system. It’s a portable solar power station consisting of a solar panel and a power pack. I strap the solar panel onto the top of my panniers and charge the system as I ride during the day. I set it up in camp on rest days, too. Though I’ve charged the power pack a few times in hostels, hotels and campgrounds, 90 percent of the power I’ve used has come from the sky. When the power pack is fully loaded it can feed all my electronics and still show juice on the meter.
Another approach that I’ve seen is something called E-Werks, a gadget made by the German company, Busch and Mueller. It’s a USB port that mounts on the handlebars and allows you to charge your electronics via a small electric generator in the front wheel hub. The advantage to this system is that it works rain or shine. But unlike my solar panel it just sits there when you’re not riding.
If you’ve traveled much you know that language is not that big of a barrier. English has become the default second language for most people in the world. On those occasions when you can’t find an English speaker you can usually communicate through hand gestures. If you’re asking directions, a map can be helpful as a visual aid. While riding through Portugal, I stopped at a produce stand to ask about the route to a nearby campground. The woman spoke no English so she sketched out a rough map with a stick in the dirt.
Sometimes, though, the language barrier can lead to odd encounters. I had stopped at a small food stall in Viet Nam and asked the lady running the place if I could use the restroom. Neither she nor any of the others present understood my urgent need. I tried everything short of mime but to no avail, we just weren’t communicating. Clearly frustrated, the woman handed me a piece of chalk and pointed to the cement slab upon which we stood, making large circular motions with her hands. I stood dumbfounded for several beats; was she was telling me to draw a target on the cement, grab a squat and let go right there in front of everyone? I’d never been to Viet Nam before. Maybe that was just how they did things. Finally, I figured out that she was indicating that I should write my request. With a huge sigh of relief I printed WC in large letters on the cement. I was promptly directed to the water closet located at the back of the establishment.
As the weeks and months go by you’ll miss your old home less and less. You’ll be more comfortable with life on the road and though you’ll still want to keep in touch with those people important to you, that lifeline you thought was vital in the beginning will not seem so critical. You’ll feel right at home no matter where you are; in a mud hut deep in a jungle or in a tent high on a mountain pass. The whole concept of home will change for you. It will expand to mean simply Planet Earth.
And how cool is that?