March 22, 2013

Keeping a low profile

(thanks wingnuts)

I recently read a great story on the internet by this retired guy who was riding in Mexico with a group of riders, who narrowly avoided 'un robo' when gun toting bandits  ambushed them all when they left town.    I was never got robbed during my six months on the road aside from having a few things taken from my room when I stupidly left it unlocked.   Horror stories make interesting tales to tell after you are safe at home, whereas my story was more boring, but boring is probably better when you are actually on the road for six months.

I might just have been luckier, but I intentionally took precautions to keep me out of this kind of trouble.

I mostly avoided tourist destinations or districts.

I took Spanish lessons, and carried dictionaries and some MP3 recorded common phrases that would be useful to me.

I chose a motorcycle and gear that I thought was going to be similar to what the local motorcyclists would have.

And I travelled alone.

Travelling alone may seem counter intuitive, but bear with me here.

After many years of careful observation and hands on experimentation, I can positively say that when riding motorcycles with a group, the whole is definitely not greater than the sum of its parts.

I don't think I need to explain this any further to any one who has ridden with a group of friends.  Stupid group behaviour on a road trip goes beyond being stupid on the road, it will be stupid in the hotel, in restaurants, on the bikes and off the bikes.  You and your friends are gonna piss people off and you are gonna stand out.  You may become a target.

If you are still having trouble with this concept, envision this scenario.  You are at your favorite watering hole or hangout and a single Russian guy walks in.  He is having some trouble communicating with the wait staff, but he seems like a harmless guy, so you invite yourself over, try to help out, buy him a few beers and enjoy his company.  
Now picture this, instead of one Russian, 6 walk in.  They don't speak English, but they don't seem to care to either, they are talking and laughing amongst themselves, you don't understand what they are saying, but you are pretty sure they are poking fun at you, your friends your hangout, your town.  As the night goes on they get louder and more obnoxious, you and your friends are getting fed up with them.......  

¿los Americanos feos?

Learning  the language does not have to be a big deal, and all you need is enough to get you started.  You can do lessons on line,  attend a class, choose one of the many options available for travellers, you don't need college level ability, you need to be able buy a few staples, get directions, find hotels and restaurants etc. you can even take lessons along the way, take a break and take a class, Google will find it.  Even if you are a totally incompetent linguist, your hosts will appreciate the effort.

Learn something about the culture.  It is easy to be rude when you don't know you are being rude.  Every time a 'foreigner' pisses you off at home, consider that the person may not be trying to be intentionally rude, they just did not bother to learn what acceptable behaviour is 'over here'.  Still  rude is rude, and ignorance is no excuse, so try to make sure you do not step on any toes when you are away.  

Being familiar with ordinary customs will also ease frustration,  people in Latin America eat their meals at different times than in North America for instance, it can be very frustrating trying to find a restaurant when  they are all closed and you think they should be open.

And never forget that when you are travelling, wherever you are travelling, you are a guest, and guests have responsibilities as well as hosts.

Another thing I did was research the kind of bikes people would be riding in Central and South America.   I wanted a bike that would blend in, and I wanted an adventure bike that could handle any kind of road or no road at all.   I also wanted a bike I could pick up easily by myself after it fell over.   My choice was a KTM 640 Adventure, which was probably not the best choice.   Before I left, the KTM met all requirements, dealerships in every country, good reputation for providing service and parts to travelers, excellent off road capabilities, so so for highway touring, but easy to pick up after it it falls over.
What I failed to account for was KTM's 'ready to race' characteristics, best re stated as don't hitch a thoroughbred to a plow and expect it to be happy about it.  Crappy gas, hit and miss maintenance take a toll over 30,000 kilometers.
A better choice would have been a KLR 650 or a 650 Vstrom both of which were fairly common sights on my trip.   Once you arrive in Mexico anything bigger than a 250 is overkill unless you plan to stay on the toll roads or on the Baja peninsula.  An excellent Mexico bike, if you can find one, is the street legal made in China 250 cc dual purpose bike.  They are cheap and nasty, but they run for ever, and every tiny town you come to has mechanics who can keep them going with bailing wire and chewing gum.

One thing that did work out well, few people know what a KTM is, but it does resemble the aforementioned no name  department store Chinese dual purpose bikes which are as common as fleas in Central and South America, as the Chinese factories copy KTM styling, so somewhat ironically, the rarely seen KTM looks just like the  flood of KTM imitations.   Keeping it mostly unwashed was also a deliberate strategy to deflect attention, as well as appealing to my lazy self.

Avoiding el distrito turĂ­stico was more of a personal preference, I was not interested in them or what they had to offer, I was more interested in finding out what Mexico and the rest of Latin America was like for the people who live there, but as it turns out, it was also a lot safer.  Lets face it, if you want to make a living robbing people, you should go where you find the most cash, and where nobody knows you.  In other words, no mierda en la cama.