Time to ‘fess up! You have probably had your share of daydreams about escaping your daily routine. Even after relocating successfully, you’ll sooner or later reach the point when a strange country starts feeling like home: a cozy feeling, but a little stifling, too.
While most of us leave the big adventure to our daydreams, some are lucky enough to live it. InterNations member Mahsa, an expat from Iran, is among those happy few. Follow her on her trip of a lifetime as a solo female biker through Ethopia, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
Finding a Peculiar Niche
Mahsa wasn’t born to be an adventurer: she lived in her native Tehran till the age of 17, when she moved to Germany for the following eight years. She did a lot of travelling and moving in her twenties, “hopping from one country to another”, as she describes it, until she came to Spain in 2003.
Despite her love of travel, organizing an international motorcycle trip wasn’t remotely on her agenda. After relocating within Spain, from Seville to Madrid, she became an early InterNations member in 2008.
She’d heard about InterNations via a German friend, who was also new to the Spanish capital. Both wanted to meet the international community and get their bearings. “You know how it is,” she says. “You don’t have any local friends, you don’t know your way around, you don’t know what’s cool. You have to find your niche.”
Today, it’s not networking in Madrid that’s on her mind. It’s learning how to say “Could you please help me lift my bike?” in Russian and sorting out a transit visa for Turkmenistan. How did finding that niche happen?
Striking Out on Her Own
Laughingly, Mahsa admits she didn’t know much about motorbikes until a few years ago. She was even a bit afraid of them – of the speed, the risk of traffic accidents. But a woman with a Vespa inspired her to start small. Then, during a trip with friends to Southeast Asia, she decided to give riding a motorbike a try – and she loved the new-found mobility and independence.
“It adds that sense of adventure,” she says. You are dependent on your environment; you need to rise to a challenge from one moment to the next; you have to be self-reliant and make your own decisions. She didn’t want to miss that for the world.
Back in Spain, Mahsa got her Spanish driver’s license for motorcycles and ended up buying her first bike – a “really big one”, she remembers, though she soon traded it in for a smaller and lighter model.
A few months after passing her driving test, she was off on a road trip to West Africa – still in the company of friends. It was very exciting, but she recalls that her lack of experience also made it potentially dangerous.
“I learned a great deal,” she says. Enough to strike out on her own.
Hitting the Road
For the last two and a half years, Mahsa has been setting out for motorcycle trips on different continents whenever possible. Her latest journey started in Spain last November. She had her bike shipped to Ethopia, where she wanted to visit a friend and take several months to explore an unfamiliar country.
She was entranced by Ethiopian history and culture, customs and traditions, and the overwhelming scenery. Her lack of language proficiency almost proved a serious drawback, though.
When she took a fall in a remote area, she couldn’t lift the bike anymore. After walking for a while, she stumbled upon a family farm – only to realize she couldn’t explain herself in Amharic.
“I felt a bit like an alien,” she sums up the situation self-deprecatingly, “and also very stupid.” Now she makes sure to know some essential phrases and “lots of motorcycle words” in the local language, or a suitable lingua franca.
After Ethopia, the next part of her route proved more difficult: Yemen was closed to her, as the country is being torn apart by a civil war, and her detour through the Saudi Arabian desert was barred due to visa restrictions for solo female travelers.
Eventually, she had the bike shipped again (“I could write a Ph.D. thesis on shipping regulations”, she jokes), this time to Oman. The rest – through Oman via the UAE through Iran – was easy, Mahsa says blithely.
She’s taking a break to shop for spare parts and study some Russian for the last stops on her itinerary. By September, she wants to have crossed Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Making Your Own Way
When reaching the Kyrgyz-Chinese border, Mahsa will have to decide anew. Bringing your motorcycle into China seems to be rather complicated, so she doesn’t know yet where she’ll go next.
She doesn’t have a strict itinerary anyway. You can’t schedule this kind of trip. “I know where I want to go. I might or might not get there on a particular day.” She laughs. “I’m not very well-organized, but I do have a map.”
Mahsa’s a slow traveler, too, preferring to live in the moment. “It’s not possible to have everything under control – actually, you shouldn’t.” It’s those unexpected moments that make the experience worthwhile.
“People always ask, ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’” she says. “I just reply, ‘no, it is amazing.’” She’s met plenty of friendly folks along the way, and she loves couchsurfing to get an impression of local life beyond the touristy clichés of her various destinations.
Her own sense of a fixed home has long been lost through travelling. “Any place could be home now,” she says. The borders of her personal existence have expanded much and more, to become virtually meaningless.
Mahsa’s story reminds me of nothing less than a famous poem from her current “home/base” Spain, Antonio Machado’s “Caminante No Hay Camino.” “Wanderer,” it reads, “the only way / is in your footprints, and no other. / Wayfarer, there is no way. / Make your way by going further.”
I’m sure this applies to wayfaring motorcyclists just as well.
If you would like to follow Mahsa’s journey, you can see pictures and read more stories from the road on her blog.
Image credit: 1) InterNations 2)-5) Mahsa H.