Three plane tickets in hand, Andreea resigned from her corporate job, Alex took a one-year sabbatical off work and Gunnar let himself be packed up and checked-in, all-equipped for a six-month travel across the Americas.
On their road from Alaska to Argentina (with a special extra, to “the really deep south”), the pilot, an introverted and analytical IT consultant and his talkative, cheerful co-pilot, a translator, got to marvel at the contrasts that abound in these two bewilderingly diverse continents. To the scenic landscapes they added their own contrast: two folk blouses from Bukovina and a Romanian flag, all caught on camera. While the blouses made people back home feel proud, the flag aroused the locals’ curiosity for a country that few had ever heard of.
They documented their road stories on-site, on Alex’s blog. Encouraged by his readers’ enthusiastic demands for photos, routes and impressions, he turned it into an official travel log. They completed their travelling team identity by choosing a mission-name for themselves: Micadu (Tall Mountains, Blue Skies, Winding Roads).
As the mileage went up, so did the blog page views, along with the conviction that it is people and their stories – rather than the dreamed-of mountains and roads – which make the risks, costs and fatigue involved worthwhile. Stories so many and so great, that they let themselves be talked into writing a book.
Alex and Andreea knew they were a good match, they’d only recently tied the knot. They also knew that both had the travel bug in them – “dream far, travel further” is actually their motto. But did they know what it is like to spend 285 days, 24/7 with the same person, in a vital space of a few square inches? Where would you retreat to, if you had a fight or just one of those days when you don’t feel like talking? What would you do if you want to go to the beach, but he wants to see glaciers?
Our Trailblazer section features a couple that literally forged a path, so we figured we should begin our three-episode series with their travel stories. And because this Hey Mărie! issue is all about relationships, we asked them about their couple’s story. But that’s something for the next episode.
How did you come up with the idea? How long did it take you to prepare for the journey?
Andreea: The idea came spontaneously, one cold winter day. It was January 2012 and we made the decision to go on a journey that we could have only dreamt of before. What came next were a few month of intense preparations. It was all new to us.
We asked ourselves a lot of questions. How do you explain to your family, friends and co-workers what you plan on doing and that they shouldn’t worry but actually be happy for you? How do you get the courage to break away from the safe, predictable life? How do you pack up a lifetime of things in bags and carton boxes and store them in your parents’ backyard, in the country-side? How do you choose what to take with you for a year long journey when the storage space is no bigger than that of a small suitcase?
Slowly, we started figuring all out. We faced difficulties, too. We’ve had some doors closed to us, so we had to go in “through the window.” For instance, our first attempt at getting the visas for Canada was a failure. The reason? We knew no one in Canada to send us an invitation and we had no hotel reservations ourselves. We tried a second time, but we did it differently, sending them a letter in which we explained what we wanted to do. It was only after that we finally got our visas.
Was doing a travel journal something you went for from the very beginning?
Andreea: No, it wasn’t planned. Alex had a private blog where he would write down his thoughts. Before we got going, he decided to give it a bit of spin so that our friends and family could read it and get some sort of sense of where we were and how we were doing. Then more people started following us and asking about our route, adventures, impressions. That’s pretty much how our blog grew, along with our journey.
Towards the end of our journey, people kept saying “Alex, man, you should really be writing a book about this.” People kept telling him that until he suddenly went like “OK, I’ll give that a go.” And it really would have been a pity for him not to do it, especially since it had all been written as we made our journey. Once you get home, the details get lost, but if they get pinned down on the spot, stories keep their freshness and authenticity.
Did other blogs inspire you?
Andreea: Ever since Alex got a motorcycle he started following biker forums on-line. He was passionate about traveling and wanted to know what people were up to. He kept on reading and noticed that bikers help each other out. There’s many different varieties of bikers, but I’d say travelers are the best.
That’s because they actually stick out for one another. If someone sees your location, they go “oh, I’ve got a friend out there. You can make a stop at their place.” And it’s way better if you get to know the place through the people that you meet, rather than just go looking at waterfalls and lakes. They’re pretty, but they don’t speak much. Whereas people have so many stories to tell. It really is worth all the time and effort.
What’s the biker community like?
Andreea: There’s this page called Horizons Unlimited, started by a Canadian couple that has been on the road since the 80’s. They also organize meets in different places around the world; we’ve actually met Canadian bikers through this website.
It’s only then that you realize you’re not crazy. That OK, your parents do support you, but they still fear for you and they still don’t get why you’d do a travel like that. And your friends are the same. If they don’t own a motorcycle, they’re still good friends, you can talk to them, but they keep saying “look, I don’t get this whole bike thing. Look at how many people die in road crashes; or the noise they make, I can’t sleep because of them.”
Fellow travelers, on the other hand, are people that you sit down at a table with and talk about the border between Peru and Colombia as if it’s something familiar. ”You know that border? The border guards have changed…”
Kind of like us talking about the latest episode of our favorite series…
Andreea: Ha-ha, yeah, something like that. The traveler community can validate you as mentally sane, or that there are others out there even crazier than you are. You get advice, tips about places to go to… And if you’re following them from home, you feel an aching for not being able to go along with them.
Were you aware of the fact that things won’t always go according to plan, that there are risks involved in this?
Andreea: We’ve learned about that through Couchsurfing. When we went to Norway, before going to the Americas, we had just discovered Couchsurfing and we kept staying at people’s homes, all the way to the far north. We kept expecting for the worst to happen. One guy once took us on a car ride through the forest, in Finland. We told each other that we should remember our way back, but there came a time when we lost track of the fixed points and I actually said to Alex “this guy is gonna eat us.” Alex’s reply was “don’t worry, the guy has a child.” I was like “yeah, he’s gonna cook us up and then feed us to the kid.”
There weren’t many moments when we both felt worried at the same time. We have this thing going, whereby we complement each other. Every time one of had doubts, the other one calmed them down. And all this occurred without our realizing it, we hadn’t set out on doing things this way, it just happened like that.
We were somewhere in Central America – I’m not gonna give names, and some people really bugged me because they were looking at us like tourists, considering us walking wallets, not actual people. I went something like “argh, I can’t stand them anymore, let’s get the hell outta here,” to which Alex said “look, you have to understand them, they’re facing hardships.” We’d always calm each other down. And that still happens today.
Did you know that the journey would last for 9 months?
Andreea: We didn’t. I tried to get a six-month leave from work, so that was our expected timeframe, also because that’s how long we thought the money and the route would last. We figured that six months would be a decent amount of time, not too short, not too long. I ended up quitting my job because I couldn’t even get those six months off. Alex took a one year sabbatical off work.
Our plane tickets had a six-month return date, but when we reached Panama, going from Central to South America, we realized we weren’t going to make it. That’s when we got an extension on the tickets. We let the folks back home know (they’d thought we’d come back earlier), we posted on the blog and e-mailed people, telling them that “it might be a while before we get back, cuz things are pretty awesome.”
On the road
You started your journey from Montreal, where you landed, complete with Gunnar, the trusted motorcycle. What was your route after that?
Alex: From Montreal, on the east coast of Canada, we went west, towards Alaska, USA. Then we started our descent. We went through Canada again and we crossed to the States, where we stayed for a month, visiting mostly the west side.
We explored Mexico and Central America by the Pacific coast. The passage to South America, from Panama, was made by sea. That’s because the Darien Gap, a jungle and swamp area makes the passage impossible by land. From Columbia onward, our objective was Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.
What were the borders like, did you have any troubles from one country to another?
Andreea: We allotted a whole day for customs, because we knew that doing the paperwork for us and the motorcycle takes time. We got into a rhythm after a while. Alex took care of the customs paperwork for me, while I was taking care of the motorcycle and chatting to people. That’s the way to get stories, straight from the people themselves, not from books or pictures.
Take the Guatemalan border guards, for example. They asked us what Romania is like, what our president’s name is (they had no idea where Romania actually is, but they wanted to know the president’s name). They asked us questions like “don’t you guys have an army over there?” to which we replied “Yes we do, but they’re not deployed on the streets, like they are over here. Our army is just for emergencies.” “So who’s protecting you on the streets?” They were being really honest, they couldn’t conceive of a world different from their own. I realised their reality is very harsh. And we complain about our country… It’s true, we might not have the best possible standards of living but, by comparison, things are definitely better.
By the way, what language did you use with the locals?
Andreea: From Central America southwards we tried Spanish. We had one of those language courses on tape and we kept listening to it on the road in the US. We’d exercise talking to each other on the intercom that we had in our helmets. There was no escape for Alex, even on the road he had to talk to me.
Alex: When we entered Mexico, the full extent of my Spanish was “Por favor no me matas”and “No soy gringo, no tengo dinero.” Andreea’s Spanish was a little better, she’d learned a bit from those Latinamerican soap operas on TV. When we’d get to a hotel we had a sort of checklist: motorcycle parking was the first item, because we wanted to be sure that we’d still have a ride when we woke up the next morning. Also pretty high on our list was hot water. “Tienes agua cliente?” “Sí, sí, claro que sí!” And we’d go to the bathroom, we’d turn the hot water on and it wasn’t hot at all. That happened so often that at one point I asked her “hey, Andreea, does caliente mean lukewarm?”
Andreea: Whenever he’d ask me about a word in Spanish, I kept remembering songs. When he asked me the thing with caliente I thought “ritmo caliente doesn’t mean lukewarm rhythm…”
How did you manage with the food, did you carry any reserves?
Andreea: We didn’t really have reserves. Riding a motorcycle means there’s not much room for storing things. Alex, the good consultant that he is, drew up a spreadsheet for us before we left… Everything was calculated: t-shirts, socks, underwear. I kept trying to add to the list but he made me take everything out of the bag to double-check what went in and what didn’t. And I liked that. It was alright for him to remove some of it because I knew I didn’t actually need it, but I couldn’t go through with it myself. If it was someone else’s decision, I could just blame him and that was it.
I forgot one dress that I wanted to take with me and it wasn’t until Guatemala that I could get one, because we didn’t really stop over in cities. In Guatemala I bought a skirt and a dress, but I had to give two items up to take them with me. I left behind two t-shirts, but the skirt was long and I could also use it as a dress or as a nightgown.
I also had a scarf that I used in multiple ways. It even ended up as a rope of sorts. At one point, when the wind was strong, we used it to keep the windscreen in place. It also served as a beach towel, a tablecloth, a napkin, a hat. A really nice scarf, that one. I should write a blog post about it…
Did you ever have a dangerous situation or a moment in which you thought “what the hell did we get ourselves into?”
Andreea: Not really, we had it pretty easy. There was this one time when we were in the deep south, in Argentina, where it was deserted and the wind was really, really nasty. It was blowing us off the motorcycle. Alex kept trying to keep it steady; the wind was blowing at 60 mph. At that point I couldn’t understand why he wanted to go all the way south and we couldn’t just stop there and go back north, instead. I actually told him once I was considering getting a bus back to Buenos Aires and waiting for him there. Let him do his stuff, and I could use the time in BA to interact with people, do some tango…
He said, “give it another day, you might change your mind.” We got to the far south, in Ushuaia, and we found an expedition ship that took us to Antarctica. Because of us actually reaching Antarctica and it being as incredible as it was, I can’t really complain anymore. But, that moment there, in Patagonia, with the wind and the desertedness was really unpleasant. I didn’t want to be there. I saw myself on a beach, somewhere up north. The hard work was worth it, but I keep having bad memories about that stretch of road, of the two or three days it took us… We literally had nothing else to put on for warmth, it was that cold.
So the take-away is “keep riding”? Or better yet, your own motto: “dream far, travel further.”
Andreea: That’s right. At a certain point, I ended up thinking that things would just take care of themselves. I used to tell myself “Why worry? Somehow things will work out.” In fact, many times it was Alex the one coming up with the solutions I’d take for granted.
Solutions like when we were in different cities or villages looking for accommodation and we’d have this man come up to us and offer to take us in. It didn’t happen every night, unfortunately. There were times when we’d keep looking, feeling tired, we’d get off the motorcycle, take our helmets off, go to a hotel and ask the well-know check-list: “Got motorcycle parking? Got wi-fi? Tienes agua caliente?”
Did you come across other young people doing this sort of travelling? Or is that something that they can’t really afford?
Andreea: How you travel matters a lot. If you’re used to comfort and want to spend every night in a hotel, you can’t pull that off, as a young person. But for a student, one who’s used to getting by on a monthly allowance, I think they would be able to manage such a journey.
We came across a guy who was born in Guatemala but lived in Canada. He was sleeping on the roof of a McDonald’s; he only bought the $1 menu, that was his entire food for the day. Old ladies would see that he was a nice guy, all alone, and their maternal instinct would kick in and they’d help him out…
You manage. The motorcycle is a door-opener (and the bike even more so) because people can see that you’re riding under the open skies and they feel the need to offer shelter, they think it’s a really romantic way to travel and want to know more about it.
We met people that noticed us because we were riding a motorcycle. We had our Romanian flag up and they’d ask us which country the flag belonged to, or our license plate, and that’s how we’d start talking… We’d stop to take pictures of the folk blouses and they’d ask us “what are those, where did you get those from” and the story sharing would begin. You find bridges.
Did you find any women doing this, on their own?
Andreea: Yes. We found this Australian chick who was going the same way we were, from the US to South America. She was a blue-eyed blonde and she told me that the minute she got to Mexico she was seriously considering dyeing her hair brown and putting on contacts because all the Mexicans were attracted to her and couldn’t figure her out.
We also met girls wearing high heels because their feet didn’t touch the ground off the motorcycle, so for them to be able to ride they had to wear high-heeled boots. And they rode. It’s doable. You just need that extra push to get out of your house, lock the door and follow the road.
When you were having a bad day, did it help knowing that you had people following you online?
Andreea: Yes, we felt less alone. On New Year’s Eve we were in Lima, Peru, in a hotel. You know how it goes, during the holidays; you see your friends, you call or text them. And we felt like “OK, we’ve got each other,” but we missed the gang, the whole celebration mood.
That’s when we received a text message telling us to check our e-mail. When we opened it, we found this video that several friends, who didn’t know each other, had made. I don’t even know how they got around to doing it. I think it was through our Facebook page that people that were following us grouped together and did a montage with their holiday wishes for us. One was shot at the seaside, another in someone’s backyard… it turned out great. That’s when we told ourselves “you know what, let’s keep going, our friends are still there, waiting for us and cheering us on.”
What was it like, interacting with the locals? How were people in, say, South America?
Alex: Language mattered a lot. If they’d speak English, it would be pretty easy to communicate. We got around to learning some Spanish, eventually. I’m usually quite critical of myself, but I was glad that by the time we got to Argentina I could actually put a few sentences together. And if I had three or four beers, I was an expert already…
There was this one night in Colombia with people that we didn’t know but who eventually took us in. It was really interesting. One of them provided the accommodation, while his boss kept our motorcycle in his backyard. After we solved the administrative bit, we said we’d go out to town. The going out turned out to be at an auto repair shop. The boss owned a small car parts store and we hung around there. He pulled the blinds, called a couple of friends, one of them a traffic cop, and we started drinking beer and talking about Romania.
In the beginning it was a bit difficult. We’d talk about history or politics in their rough English and my beginner’s Spanish. They had beer and their English improved; I had beer and my Spanish skills got better. The conversation ended up being great, it was one of the most interesting evenings. We were at it for a while – I think it was 1 AM – and I was looking at these people: more than half of them didn’t even know my name but they still came over. We were acquainted with basically just two people, and even them we had only met a few hours before, but there we were, talking politics, culture, social issues…
We even got tips about negotiating with the cops, from the cop himself. He told us that all we needed to say when the policeman pulled us over was “Sir, you’ll find that my passport contains a thousand reasons why this shouldn’t be a problem.” I can’t remember what their currency was, but if you converted that to dollars, it didn’t really mean much.
How would you convince someone who’s sceptical or puzzled about travelling on a motorcycle? What is that special something that only such an experience can provide?
Andreea: I remember going off with Alex to Turnu Magurele, near the Danube. Alex was riding slowly (he’s usually a slow rider, he goes slower than when driving a car because that’s when the world really looks different). We’d hear the conversations that old ladies would have sitting in front of their houses, in the village; we could smell what the entire village had cooked, we’d smell every dish… As Mihai said, he’s the guy who wrote the preface to our book, “when it rains, it pours; when it’s cold, it’s freezing, but when it’s good, it’s so goddamn good.”
You also become aware of things that you don’t realize while driving a car, with the windows up. There, you smell the Lila air freshener. When you are riding a motorcycle, you can smell the lilac forest next to you. You hear crickets; you hear sparrows fighting… In a single ride we come up with a dozen different stories for what those sparrows might be arguing about or what the desperate thoughts of a field mouse cutting your way are.
When we passed through Brazil we saw a turtle sitting in the middle of the road. I said “Alex, Alex, there’s a turtle in the middle of the road! Let’s go back and take it off the road!” We went back, he parked the motorcycle and grab the turtle while I was taking pictures of it. So there he was, turtle in hand, looking at the poor old thing – who knows how long it had been sitting around, and he went “You know what? I know why we went on this trip. It’s to help this turtle cross the road.”
In Episode II, we asked Andreea and Alex about their story, about the beginnings of their love affair with travelling on two wheels and about what they have learned after living together on a motorcycle saddle. More to come…
Interview by Alexandra Ștef
Photos courtesy of Micadu