Know When to Fold ’em

It would be so easy to undertake this trip in a van. We could easily carry everything we needed to be comfortable and self-sufficient. We would have fewer concerns about safety and security on the road, especially when we’re off on an adventure away from the vehicle. We could easily sleep in a van when we’ve found that amazingly perfect spot, but it’s too cold or wet to bother with a tent. We could charge all of the gadgets and doo-dads we’d need to keep us entertained and on our pre-determined path. Cruising in climate-controlled luxury. Best of all, overlander rigs are a dime a dozen all across South America. We could pick any destination we fancy, and I guarantee that within a week we’d be the proud new owners of an appropriate vehicle that fits our budget. Absolutely no international vehicle shipping required. Maybe… maybe just a nice little van…

Photo by Mikel Ibarluzea on Unsplash

But you know what else comes with a cage? Insulation. Isolation. You don’t really smell the ocean spray or the freshly cut fields. You don’t feel the rain or the warmth of the sun. You pass over the road as a means to an end, instead of really experiencing the road as an integral part of your journey. You close yourself off, intentionally and unintentionally, to interactions with other people. Simply being in an enclosed vehicle, especially as a family unit, makes people less inclined to approach you. As a result, you’re less likely to hear about that incredible road-less-traveled, that little gem that only the locals know about. But possibly the most critical thing missing from a caged journey? The community. There is simply nothing in the world like the motorcycle community. I can’t imagine taking a trip of this magnitude without the motorcycle community being an integral part of it, both because of how important it is to me and because I want Monty to fully experience it for herself. This is truly the best community in the world.

Case in point: My last blog post. I was (am) at my wits end trying to come up with a shipping option for getting the sidecar rig (at bare minimum) to South America. I ran through the full-picture drama in that post, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that nobody really wants to deal with vehicle export from the USA. We make life difficult, apparently, and nobody wants to willingly subject themselves to that. Cue the Amazing Motorcycle Community! Within hours of that blog going live, I had literally dozens of messages from friends and followers offering help and suggestions. Some provided contact information for freight forwarders or transport services that they had used. Others offered to put me in touch with contacts in other regions – friends, business associates, experienced travelers – who might be able to help. Still others offered up ideas for approaches that I might not have thought of. That’s why I love this community! Even though I’m not sitting on the side of the road with a flat tire, riders saw another rider in need of assistance and jumped right in.

So through the power of love and brotherhood, we solved our transport troubles and are excitedly planning all the other aspects of our journey, right? Um… not so fast. Turns out I didn’t just have a flat tire, I had a massive blowout with no tire shops in sight. I submitted for a bunch of quotes to fly the bikes between North and South America, based on recommendations of friends and fellow travelers (albeit from transactions that happened a number of years ago); I received a New Record High Quote of $8,000 to fly both bikes from Los Angeles to Chile. No problem; we’re just as happy to ride up to Canada and fly down from there. Canada on the whole is far more amenable to facilitating (or at least not impeding) international vehicle transport, and we do love the heck out of Canada. Air Canada doesn’t have any routes into South America on their Fly Your Bike program, but they can still fly motorcycles as regular cargo. I approached them for information and, not to be outdone, they quickly provided me with a New Record High Quote of $9,600 to fly both bikes from Toronto to Bogota. We’re Number One! (sigh.) It seems the harder I work, the more research I do to make sure I’m providing all the right information in the right way, the higher the price tag is getting.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

It’s time to come at this from a different angle, so we’re mulling over a number of different options. The US is a bust and Canada doesn’t seem to be any cheaper. Or at least, it’s not cheaper to South America. Just for interest sake I also asked Air Canada to quote transport to Glasgow, Scotland. Glasgow IS on the Fly Your Bike program and we also have family in Scotland. Turns out we could get both bikes to Europe for under $2,500 out the door. At that rate, it would be substantially cheaper to fly the bikes to Scotland, explore for a while, then ship from Europe back to South America. At least then we’d get some cool adventure for our money rather than just tossing $10k directly down the drain. Another possibility would be to go South to fly South. We could ride down through Mexico and fly out of Mexico City or Merida, or possibly ship out of Cancun. Mike isn’t nearly as apprehensive about riding Baja California (or as he called it, Southern Southern California), and from there it’s an easy ferry ride across the Sea of Cortez then a quick zip across mainland Mexico. Piece of cake, right? Maybe?

Then again, if we’ve already broken that Central America seal, why not just keep going? There are two reasons why we were not planning to ride through Central America: First, Mike didn’t feel like it was safe. It took me so long to talk him into South America that Central America was a concession I was more than willing to make. So what has changed? Believe it or not, Mike was actually the one to suggest riding down through Mexico and shipping from there. I think he’s actually getting pretty enthusiastic about this trip, and doesn’t want to see it derailed before it starts. He’s willing to make some concessions to make it happen. I gently presented to idea of the yacht cruise and he said “Why the heck aren’t we doing that?!?!” Because that option requires us to get ourselves to Panama. “Well,” he replied, “you talked me into South America.” A little glimmer of hope, perhaps? I think maybe the myriad of travelers saying “My only regret about Central America was not having more time to enjoy it” just might be starting to sway his opinion a tiny bit.

The second consideration was that, at the time, it seemed to be nearly the same price to ship from the US to South America as it was to ship around the Darien Gap. Once you’re in Panama, they know they have you over the tourist barrel. There is really no reasonable away around The Gap aside from shipping or flying; you can easily get sucked into a mire of surprise fees, shipping delays, paperwork struggles, bribe attempts, and language barriers. And once again, the sidecar really throws a wrench in the works. It’s definitely a lot harder to just show up and hope to sneak in on a shipment with the sidecar, especially based on the number of “We don’t handle sidecar” replies I’ve received on transport inquiries. It just seemed so much easier to handle everything in the US and arrive in South America ready to roll. But that was before, and this is now.

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

To recap, what are some of the options around The Gap? We could fly, which is the fastest and typically has the fewest surprises. We could share a container, which is the cheapest but also the slowest, with the highest probability for delays and added costs. There are any number of countries and ports/airports where we could depart from, depending on how far we wanted to ride. Travelers often report flying their bike and themselves from Central America to Colombia for around $1,000, but then again I’ve heard people say they got an entire container out of the US for $2,600, so I’m taking all these numbers with a big ol’ grain of salt.

And there is another option around the Darien Gap: Yacht cruise. No, I’m not joking. Sailing along with your bike on an island-hopping vacation-within-a-vacation is actually a very popular choice for motorcycle travelers. They load up you and your bike, feed you glorious meals, stop for snorkeling around little desert islands, and deliver you fat, relaxed and happy to the port in Columbia. Depending on which company you select, either all or most of the fees and expenses are included in the price of the trip. It’s not nearly the cheapest option, but at $3,300 for an all-inclusive four-day cruise for three people and two bikes, it’s not nearly our most expensive option either. (That $10k quote for Air Canada is going to be hard to top.) The down side is that our travel schedule had put us in the area of Uruguay in early October. If we’re just hitting Central America in October, we’ll be arriving right in time for hurricane season. A lot of the ships start rolling in their sails at that time, so we’d either have to leave home much earlier than planned or come up with a different option.

So, yeah. We’re still at an impasse. We’re not paying $8,000 to get our bikes to South America. I wouldn’t be thrilled about paying half that. I would sooner pay $2,500 to ship the sidecar, then just buy a second bike down there. I gave a good overview of that option in the last blog too, so if you haven’t read that one yet, head over there to see all the pros and cons of buying down there. What happens if we can’t come up with any palatable options? Then plans need to change. Europe is an possibility that neither of us are opposed to, but the cost of traveling around Europe will definitely shorten the duration of our adventure. Asia is a possibility too; Mike has traveled around Thailand, but I’ve never been to Asia. Or what about… staying a little closer to home?

A big wrench in the works is if we stay anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, with an October departure date, winter will be upon us. This past October we had some solid weeks of freezing rain in South Dakota. We’d have to head south pretty quickly, and that’s assuming that the weather treats us well for our departure plans. If we’re leaving from the US and heading south through Mexico and Central America, we should be in good shape weather-wise (assuming we can dodge any hurricanes.) So what if we were to explore around Central America through spring, then head back north to explore Canada and the US? I know I said that we didn’t need a year to explore North America because it is so more accessible than South America; when I said that, I didn’t realize that South America was virtually impenetrable from here. It is also much more expensive to embark on extended travel around North America, but by avoiding expensive shipping we will have that much more to spend. I would be extremely disappointed to give up on my South American dreams (for the time being) but I don’t want to entirely miss out on the opportunity to travel before Monty starts school. I also don’t want to tank our family financially by plowing ahead with a “nothing money can’t fix” attitude.

Photo by Arto Marttinen on Unsplash

I sent out some new quote requests today. I still have a few friends putting out feelers for us. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling pretty defeated. Persistence, in this case, only seems to be making things worse for both my stress levels and shipping quotes. Pending receipt of these last few quotes, I’ve pretty well exhausted all my resources. While I was writing this, I received an email from my last yacht-cruise option with the news that they don’t accommodate sidecars. I’d happily buy a couple cheap bikes in South America if finding a sidecar was a reasonable expectation. I’ve done my due diligence and come back with nil. So what does the future hold for Third Wheel Adventures? Only time will tell…

-Wendy

One step forward…

This week’s blog is going to be relatively short because I simply don’t have enough hours in the day. I keep telling myself that I need to relax, that we’re far enough out from kickstands-up that some aspects of the planning might just have to wait. Handle what I reasonably can handle now, and attack some of the finer details later.

Unfortunately there are a few major things that I just can’t let go of. Primarily, I really REALLY feel like I need to firm up some idea of how the bike shipping is going to work, but it just isn’t coming together for me. Plane? Container? RoRo? Give up and just buy down there? I’ve made a dozen phone calls, sent out easily three times that many emails, and still… nothing. I’m getting very few acknowledgments to my inquiries and even fewer shipping quotes. The quotes that I have received are about double what I’d anticipated. And that’s not just some wild number I pulled out of the air; I’m getting quoted double what other people are being quoted for similar travels right now. I just can’t catch the right person on the right day, or I’m not asking the right questions, or… I’m not sure what the problem is. It’s very possible that we’re simply too far out to get a firm quote, or for the shipping agents to be too enthusiastic about helping. I fill out lengthy forms with VINs and dimensions; I supply our desired travel dates, points of departure and arrival, but also include that we’re highly flexible on all of those points. It’s hard to tell if people are interpreting “flexible” as “non-committal”, but honestly I’m hoping to catch that one agent who will reply “Those ports are good, but we can save you $500 and a week of shipping time if you ship through these ports.”

I’ve even been seriously contemplating just buying a bike (or both) in South America. Our requirements are meager – as it is, we’re planning on traveling with bikes whose value will probably be equal to or less than the cost of shipping them down there. We will probably sell the bikes in South America rather than pay to ship them home (unless I can con Mike into crossing the Darien Gap on the northbound part of the journey, in which case we’ll just ride them home).

There are just a few big concerns preventing me from throwing caution to the wind and trying to find bikes when we get there. First, there is potential difficulty with paperwork and border crossings. Some countries are better than others but in most countries, as a tourist, you’re not able to actually put the vehicle into your name. You need to carry what is essentially a power of attorney where the titled owner gives you permission to cross borders with their vehicle. Getting all the paperwork in order can be expensive and time-consuming, and even then there is no guarantee that everything will work smoothly. I often see where travelers are stuck at a border crossing because some “I” is not dotted or a “T” is not crossed. My next concern is the inability to fully mechanically vet the bikes ahead of time, and be prepared with vehicle-appropriate luggage and a reasonable amount of spare/service parts. I don’t need to go too wild on this point, but it’d be nice to know roughly how we’ll be packing the bikes, what size of spare master link and chain adjustment tools we’ll need to carry, and have a couple spare levers or whatever.

The last, and biggest, issue is the ability to find a sidecar rig. I’ve made inquiries and from what I hear, they are even fewer and further between than they are in the States. We would be taking a serious risk by flying down there without having a rig already lined up. We’d be randomly picking a place to fly into and just hoping to find a hack within a reasonable distance, within a reasonable amount of time, for a reasonable price, and in safe, comfortable and mechanically sound condition. Literally the two most important things in my entire world will be on that bike, and the three of us will essentially be living off the bike for a year. I don’t want to be settling for something sub-par simply because the pickings are slim.

Photo by REVOLT on Unsplash

I’ve come across some well-reviewed places that specialize in selling bikes to tourists. They handle all the paperwork so the vehicle is actually titled in your name, not just using a power of attorney. They go through the bike thoroughly to make sure it’s safe, serviced, and ready to rock. They install any accessories you want, such as saddlebag racks, taller handlebars, wide footpegs, etc, before you arrive. All you have to do is sign the title, hop on, and go. They’ll even buy the bike back if you want to sell it at the end of your trip. The only hitch is, once again, the sidecar. Everyone I’ve communicated with is pretty confident that they wouldn’t be able to find a sidecar rig for us “in the wild”. We’ve had one shop offer to build us a rig, but they want us to purchase a bike from them ahead of time and we’d be left hoping that the sidecar they built was up to our standards. And that’s not an unreasonable requirement, really, except that the bikes they’re selling that would be suitable for a sidecar are all newer and in the $12,000 range. We’re not looking to invest anywhere near that much, especially because they say there won’t be much resale demand for a sidecar rig down there. Plowing that much money into a custom-built hack with low odds of selling it at the end of the trip? That quite thoroughly defeats the purpose of trying to circumvent the expense and hassle of shipping.

Photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash

I’m honestly warming to the idea of just shipping the sidecar and buying a second bike down there. There are always other travelers selling their bikes, often from the US. Transferring a US bike into our names would be way less hassle (in theory) but still take some time and effort. Plus if we had the sidecar, it would still be possible for the three of us to get around until we picked up another bike (as awkward though that would be. We’d have to arm wrestle to figure out who’d be the passenger. Monty would probably win, and she doesn’t have a motorcycle license yet.) I’d also be happy to buy a little dual sport from one of the specialty shops, with the benefit of a guaranteed buy-back at the end of the trip. But then the question remains: Who the heck is going to help us get the sidecar to South America?!?

I’ll be writing a separate blog about “information overload” but suffice to say I have reached out to a number of the resources I have at my disposal, and I’m finding that shipping from the US is just plain difficult. It’s expensive, there’s lots of red tape, and many carriers just don’t want to deal with us. We may end up having to find a way across the Darien Gap or buying a bike down there, because I’m just about exhausted with this endeavor already. I put out a few feelers today and got two new leads, so I’m off to compose a few emails. Wish me luck. And in the meantime, please enjoy this picture of the mountains of Peru courtesy of Montessa.

-Wendy

Interview: Adventure Kid!

Montessa is getting really amped up about everything having to do with our trip. She loves looking at pictures of South America, pouring over maps, and working on her Spanish. She also loves pitching in on our blog content. Unfortunately her passion for storytelling surpasses her ability to transcribe those tales in a format that is understandable by… well, pretty much anyone. But she sure does love pulling up a blank Word document and pounding away on the ol’ keyboard. Which, now that I think about it, really describes my creative process as well. Anyhow, Montessa was very clear that she wanted to write her OWN interview, so I let her write her answers on the laptop while I translated for her on the desktop. Here it is: Montessa’s very first Adventure Kid interview!

Wendy: How do you feel about our trip to South America?

Montessa: Happy about seeing new people and being with you and daddy.

W: What are you most excited about?

M: Spending time with you and daddy.

W: Are you looking forward to seeing or doing certain things?

M: Swimming and going to new hotels. And swimming at new swim places. Making sure everyone stays with me that I love, and visiting people in their society. (I have no idea where she picked that up!) There are more things that I want to do than staying in a hotel too.

W: What other kinds of things?

M: Making sure our pets are having a fun time at home, and also swimming in new swim places. (I’m sensing a theme…)

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W: Do you think anything will be weird or scary?

M: No, just weird.

W: What’s going to be weird?

M: Spending time with you. (Can’t argue with that.)

W: What kinds of animals do you think we’ll see down there?

M: Elephants, giraffes, monkeys and little-sized elephants.

W: What about birds?

M: Yes, birds and elephants. (I’ve never mentioned seeing elephants in South America, yet I feel like we’re somehow setting her up for disappointment with regards to our anticipated interactions with animals…)

W: What kinds of birds?

M: Animal birds.

W: Like maybe flamingos?

M: Uh-huh. And giraffes.

So long as we don’t have to battle with Satan’s avians.

W: Are you excited about doing so much sidecar riding?

M: Yes!

W: What do you like most about riding in the sidecar?

M: Being with my family.

W: Do you like it better than riding in the car?

M: Uh-huh.

W: Why?

M: Because it’s so cool!

W: How are your Spanish lessons coming?

M: Good.

W: Can you tell me something in Spanish?

M: Hola! Soy Montessa!

W: Hola Montessa! Soy Wendy.

M: Hola Wendy! Buenos noches!

W: Muy bien mi hija! Do you have anything else to share about South America?

M: I want to ride on an airplane because we can sleep on an airplane (definitely her dad’s kid.)

W: What about camping? Are you excited about camping?

M: Uh-huh, because we can camp any place that’s beautiful.

W: What do you want to say to all the people who are reading your story?

M: Good main and I hope you have a good season!

I did confirm (twice) that she said “Good main.” I don’t know what that means. Let’s just all start using that and make it mean something awesome. So there you have it, folks – Montessa’s first South American interview! Good Main y’all!

Sidecar Crew Update

Preparations are slowly coming together. Wendy put some amazing time and effort into getting our website, ThirdWheelAdventures.com, up and ready for our posts, I spent a minuscule amount of time getting our Instagram account up and running, then looking through 10 years of downloaded photos to find some of our best shots. Monty has spent an equal amount of time wearing us down with her four year old, Christmas vacation mischief. Monty and I did manage to bust out the sidecar from its winter storage to rack up some miles and grab some reference photos of the rig for our graphic designer. This kid loves riding in this thing so much, she didn’t want to put it away even though a South Dakota blizzard was breathing down our necks.

Photo work done, its back to preparing our extensive lists of tools, equipment, camping gear, not to mention a couple changes of clothes and all the other stuff that needs to fit on two bikes and a side hack. I’m still researching video equipment but I’m resigned to waiting until closer to D-Day to pull the trigger on cameras. That way we’ll either be getting good discounts on year-old tech or getting the cream of the crop.

We will need to pack the bikes and try some moto-camping trips once the South Dakota winter breaks in a few months. As has been stated by Wendy, I am not really built to sleep on the ground. It seems that I’m related to the adorably sensitive princess and the pea, with a delicate disposition and a very strong desire to be comfortable. In all honesty, between sleep apnea and insomnia I do have some pretty serious sleep issues, so being comfortable on the ground is really one of my primary concerns for this trip. Making sure I can find a way to sleep on the ground without a whole bunch of unnecessary gear is a big priority for me, so we’ll be trying out our gear – new, new-to-us, and/or long unused – several times before we commit to a setup. It’s got to be comfortable, pack small, and allow us to take full advantage of all the nooks and crannies on the sidecar. We’ll only have room for a couple extra large items, and a king size air mattress probably won’t make the cut.

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That’s it for now. Seeing Monty’s enthusiasm for spending all that time together is starting to help ease my tension, but we have a long way to go before departure. A lot of work, a lot of planning, and a lot of worrying are between here and there, but I’m doing my best to contribute to making this trip an incredible family adventure.

-Mike