My Very First Post


BELGRADE – Late last year in Budapest, I decided to pack it in and do something that’d been in the back of my mind for quite a while: drive my Vespa in a general easterly direction over the course of a year, and, barring massive mechanical failure or total loss of enthusiasm for what I was doing, end up back where I’d started. Back in 2001 I’d done a much smaller tour through Europe on different bike. (That Vespa, while painted fire-engine red, was much slower than my current one.) The tour was so ill-planned and comically underfunded that when I was done, I found myself stranded in Europe, penniless and without a plane ticket back home to Canada. And so, I crashed on a friend’s couch in Budapest, found a job, and like so many North Americans and Western Europeans, stayed for years and years. Budapest is a sticky city that way.

Some folks, if they ask me about it, have an overblown idea of expatriate living (I don’t like that word, expatriate, but unfortunately there’s no alternative) as an enviable way of life where everything’s interesting and exotic. Others see it as a superficial escape from the real world, a sort of college-never-ends limbo awash in cheap booze and strange women. There’s some truth to both these views, but in my experience the reality is much more mundane: you get up and go to work every day, pay your bills, sink beers with your friends, follow the local politics with one eye open, conduct relationships with varying degrees of success, and every once in a while go on vacation somewhere. Sometimes, you go to the movies in a shopping mall, just like back home. In other words, after a while life becomes normal – which is fine by me. Even the bizarre moon-man language you hear all around you quickly becomes unnoticeable. Of course, I can only speak about living in Hungary here, and apart from the lingering effects of four decades as a satellite of the Soviet Union — most of them bad, some of them good — Hungary has a feel to it that’s not too much of a stretch for anybody from the English-speaking world to feel at home in.

Fig. 1: A misleading representation of expat life

But back to this Vespa trip. After conducting a thorough feasibility study about travelling so far on a Vespa on bad roads with bad fuel – basically, a friend told me that two German friends of his successfully drove from Hamburg to Capetown on the same kind of Vespa, which was proof enough for me – it was time to start planning. Not wanting my time in Europe to be confined to one (admittedly very livable) city, I threw several going-away parties and moved to Belgrade, Serbia, from where I’d prepare for the trip. I’d been visiting Serbia fairly frequently over the last several years, and had a soft spot for the place, but more on that later. From a practical standpoint, moving to Belgrade might not have been such a wise move. Serbian bureaucracy, it turns out, is not for the faint of heart.

The pile of papers I ended up with after importing my Vespa

Before importing the bike I had to first get my hands on a Serbian residence permit, which, it much be said, took some doing. I won’t bore you with the details but let’s just say I’m now a registered co-director of a Serbian textile firm. (The first rule of the former Yugoslavia: nothing, and I mean nothing, is ever simple.) My legal status confirmed, I rented a van, drove up across the Hungarian border to Szeged where my Vespa had languished in a former colleague’s shed (thanks, Vilmos!), and trucked it back down to Belgrade and began the importation process. (My Vespa has a name, by the way – “Hamburglar,” after its city of origin.)

Welcome to Belgrade, Young Hamburglar

Once imported, I had to get the bike inspected and insured and registered. This involved a great deal of standing and sweating in crowded government offices. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to M.M. of New Belgrade here: were it not for her, I’d probably have spent entire days not just finding the right police station, but also figuring out that I wasn’t meant to stand in the vehicle registration line for Serbs, nor in the special queue reserved for ethnic Serbs from Kosovo, but rather to go straight to the unmarked office for foreigners down the hall. Thanks a bunch!

You want papers? I got papers.

Next up, figuring out the route for the trip. Trawling the forums at Horizons Unlimited helped a lot, as did studying maps and average temperature and precipitation charts. Vaccinations and immunizations and visas and Carnets de Passages were another problem, not to mention the problem faced in much of Asia: you simply can’t drive a private vehicle into China, you can forget about Burma, and the Vietnamese won’t let any bikes over 175cc into their country. Afghanistan, too, is pretty much out of the question, for obvious reasons. Eventually I settled upon a path that would keep me in a warm and dry bubble over the course of the year by zigzagging through eastern Europe and around the north side of the Black Sea and across the non-Russian enclaves of the Caucausus, then southeast across Iran and up through Pakistan in the fall. I’d then take my time through India before (theoretically) taking a 2-day boat ride across the Bay of Bengal to Thailand, and then head south through Malaysia to Indonesia. If the bike was still in one piece after the battering it’d surely take, a thorough rebuild in Jakarta would be in order, and in January I’d ship it from Jakarta to Buenos Aires. From there I’d drive it to New York City (easy!) and from there, ship it back to Europe via Portugal. I’m still undecided as to whether I’d like to finish the trip battling dust storms across North Africa, or taking it easy across Mediterranean Europe. All I know is, if I make it as far as Pakistan, I’ll be happy.

The general route and timetable established, I started collecting tourist visas. The Iranian visa was surprisingly easy to get my hands on; the Russian one, not so much. I still have to sort out Armenia and Pakistan. An Indian visa can allegedly be obtained in Islamabad — in fact, that’s my only option, because you can’t front-load an Indian visa; the clock on it starts ticking the instant it’s issued. This visa stuff is an ongoing worry of mine, as it seems to be for pretty much the entire overland motorcycling community.

Finally, the Hamburglar needed a good pimpin’. Meet Ivan of Autokomanda, expert auto-body restorer and all-round nice guy. He turned my crappy spangly green Vespa the colour of cappuccino foam, which is a fine classic Vespa colour if there ever was one. He also custom-built an aluminum top box and mount that could withstand the abuse from thousands of kilometres of bad road. (As an added bonus, I can now deliver pizzas with that top box, should the need arise.)

Ivan out in the shed

And then there was the Moto Davor crew of New Belgrade, just across the street from the old Chinese embassy that received a thorough remodelling by a NATO Tomahawk missile in 1999, who tricked the Hamburglar out with an indecent amount of chrome accessories. Davor (centre) originally hails from Split in Croatia, which, as anybody who’s been there knows, is absolutely swarming with classic Vespas. The guy knows his stuff and insisted on making sure my collection of spare parts was sufficient for the job.

Davor & Co. down at the shop

The most essential part of any pimpin’ operation, though, is the actual guts of the machine. Months before worrying about the paint job, I had to ask a very serious question: how could I ensure the Hamburglar would last all the way to southeast Asia? The answer, to me, was obvious: call the Germans. My friend Joern, who is arguably the finest Vespa mechanic in all Deutschland, flew in from Hamburg with a giant bag of tools and parts. His Vespa-drivin’ pal Martin also flew in from Frankfurt. The two of them donned their matching blue overalls, rolled up their sleeves, and went at the bike with a vengeance. Meanwhile, I fetched pljeskavica down at Slavija square.

"Joern, this Canadian fellow has not been maintaining his Vespa properly."

Several days and beers and rakijas later, all was done. Everything that could break or wear out had been inspected, and if necessary, replaced. The Germans gave the Hamburglar their seal of approval, grimly shook my hand, wished me luck, and left.

Later that day, I rolled the reborn Vespa out of the courtyard to Alekse Nenadovice street, pulled the choke, and gave the kickstarter one fluid thrust. First kick. It sounded good. I wrapped my hands slowly, contemplatively, around the handlebars, and eased myself onto the seat. Sitting astride this mighty globe-conquering colossus, these two hundred and sixty pounds of Italian steel throbbing between my legs, I held firm the conviction that my mechanics’ Teutonic thoroughness would spirit me to the subcontinent and beyond. I revved the mighty 198-cc engine to the redline, shrouding man and machine in a noxious cloud of two-stroke smoke. Nearby pedestrians broke out coughing, but I didn’t care. An extremely long ribbon of asphalt and dirt lay stretched out before me.


66 Responses to “My Very First Post”

  • Andrew D. Says:

    This site is glorious. Where are the posts, buddy?

  • Joern Says:

    I think i’ll better hold my breath and technical comments, until you’re back in one piece. (And the Hamburglar, of course..) 😉

  • Joern Says:

    Oh and where have your special calendar/date signs gone?

  • Roy Stephens Says:

    Way to go Sean–sounds like a hell of an adventure ! Take lots of photo’s [thank God for digitals eh !], make lots of posts so that we can follow you and drool, and write a book when you get back !!
    Lots of luck and good health on the journey !

  • Suzanne Stephens Says:

    Hi Sean! This came up in my facebook feed, can’t wait to read all about your journey and live vicariously 🙂
    (I was a year ahead at Ridley, lived across from you in Burgoyne)