More Major Malfunctions


NA’IN, IRAN — One of the biggest headaches a person can have while planning for a trip like this is figuring out what to pack. Over at the forums at Horizons Unlimited, the received wisdom is to assemble everything you think you’ll need, then unload half of it, and what’s left over is all your personal possessions for a year. Mostly because my bike isn’t exactly big, I took this to heart, and was brutal in cutting away the fat. Do I really need this tire pressure gauge? Digital SLR, or point-and-shoot? One pair of jeans, or two? In almost all cases, I opted to leave things out. And when it came to those things that I did bring, I found myself shelling out for a handful of big-ticket outdoorsy items. My friend Kareem, who once spent a year living in several countries with only what he could fit into a single carry-on bag, recommended deluxe merino wool clothes from New Zealand’s Icebreaker Clothing Company, not just because they’re built to last (and sleek and stylish to boot), but also because you can wear them again and again before they start to stink. Plus, when they do get ripe, they wash easily in a sink and dry quickly. I was sold. And that’s how I came to plan on getting by for an entire year with only four pairs of Icebreaker-brand lightweight merino wool boxer-briefs, purchased on an EasyJet shopping trip to Berlin. (I also bought a bunch of Icebreaker socks and adopted the ingenious Devitt Sock Management System, but that’s another story.)

Back in Yerevan, some evil cleaning lady at the Hotel Europe had thrown out a pair of my prized unmentionables, thus reducing my collection by a full 25%. (Staff at the front desk couldn’t understand why I was so inconsolable. I’m still nursing that grudge.) My crash on the outskirts of Tehran rendered a second pair unwearable, which halved my original strength. And last week in Esfahan, after I’d hung a load of wet clothes on a jury-rigged laundry line in the window of my hotel room, an errant gust of wind sent a third pair tumbling two floors down and into a ventilation shaft, presumably never to be seen, or worn, again. As I peered down into the black void of that ventilation shaft, waves of dread washed over me along with the dawning realization that I was now down to the single pair I was wearing. I was in one of the most heavily embargoed pariah states in the entire world; there was no telling what kind of weird, unforgiving underthings I’d have to resort to buying. They’d be imported from North Korea or Burma or worse, probably, all exposed burlap and held up with a complex array of straps and trusses. I briefly considered the commando option. Things were not good.

After much begging and pleading on my part, the concierge let me climb out of a 1st floor window into the raised courtyard and root around in the ventilation duct. And then, a miracle! They were easy to find, at arm’s length and draped over a grate in all their overpriced glory. I was now back to two pairs, which, while far less than ideal, was still feasible. I don’t bring this up to suggest some element of extreme privation, like I’m really roughing it out here. I’m not. But when a person reconfigures his life for long-term travel, his relationship with material goods changes. There’s vastly less stuff to worry about, but what few things remain suddenly become hugely important. The day-to-day business of staying clean and fed and healthy and mobile suddenly occupies much more brainpower than it used to. And ruminating on underwear — when and where to wash it, how to not lose it, where to replace it if the unthinkable happens — has an oddly effective way of focusing the mind.

RIDING A DYING VESPA, too, has an an oddly effective way of focusing the mind, and the Hamburglar really got me thinking as I sputtered east out of Esfahan towards Yazd. The sporadic engine problem I’d been having, where the bike would struggle for a few minutes at a time and then go completely back to normal, was happening more often. For those of you who’re interested, here’s what that sounded like with the bike at full throttle. (Warning: not for the squeamish)


Joern back in Hamburg, tireless as always in remotely supporting the Vespa360 Project, watched that video in his home office and theorized that the little airhole in the gas cap was clogged, and was creating a vacuum in the fuel tank which then periodically obstructed the fuel flow. I found a roadside mechanic to clear the hole with compressed air, but sadly, that did nothing. I checked the fuel pipe, and found no leaks. I tried stripping and cleaning the carburetor, and that didn’t help either. Maybe it was a weak spark that was doing it, so I tried three different plugs. No dice. All the same, the problem affected the bike maybe 10% of the time; the other 90%, it ran great. I stopped with my roadside tinkering and tried to eat as many miles as I could before sunset.

That got me as far as a small town called Na’in, out on the edge of the desert and still 150km or so from Yazd. I checked in to a great little state-run (!) hotel and set off downtown in search of 2-stroke engine oil, internet, and food. I poked my head in to a little internet café on the main drag, found that it was full, kept going down the street, and moments later some dude came loping after me to say hello. This being Iran, I was waiting for that to happen. (As an aside, a pamphlet in my hotel back in Tehran had this bit of advice for guests:

…which is, frankly, hilarious. In this country, way more than any other I’ve visited, that advice would be near-impossible to follow.)

Mahmoud owned the internet café, and was eager to meet with one of the few tourists who stopped in his town. He graciously helped me find the 2-stroke oil, which isn’t all that plentiful in these parts, after which we got the internet sorted. All along the way, we did the stop-and-chat with every other pedestrian we passed; he is, in effect, the mayor of Na’in. And then we went for a bite. Talk kept steering back to politics, not just of Iran but how it fits into the larger global picture. I learned how incredibly baffling Iranian politics can be, and how a conspiratorial angle works its way into every nook and cranny of political life here. As for the larger global picture, though, the two of us don’t agree on many of the basics, and neither of us was successful in getting the other guy to come around to our point of view, not even a little. Which is just as well. I didn’t come to Iran, of all places, expecting everybody to see eye-to-eye with me. His view of things, in which a shadowy cabal of global elites all somehow connected to Israel starts wars and reaps enormous profits to the detriment of poor nations, is by no means unique to the Middle East; I’ve heard the same tedious spiel from plenty of folks from places like Sweden. And from standup comics like George Carlin. We’ve all heard it. I will now be horribly condescending: to Mahmoud’s credit, as a consumer of Iran’s not-so-free press and whatever bits of the internet government censors let him see, he’s probably got a lot more conflicting and just downright wrong information to contend with — not to mention more hard-bitten experience — than your average Westerner, and the lure of insanely complicated conspiracy theories to explain it all is understandable. But that’s not to say it wasn’t frustrating for me.

The following morning, I spent a few hours pampering the Hamburglar every way I knew how. The engine problem was troubling, and I wanted to cover all the bases before I declared something was fundamentally wrong with it. I blew air through the jets, made sure the carb was spotless, tightened that pesky wheel nut that caused so much trouble back in the Ukraine, scrubbed the sparkplug clean, reset the fuel/air mixture and idle screws, re-checked the fuel pipe for leaks, adjusted my clutch and brake cables, topped up the air in the tires, the brake fluid, the engine oil, and the gearbox oil, tightened the cylinder head nuts, and greased and oiled everything that could possibly benefit from more lube. It was probably about as effective as giving a neck massage and a pedicure to a cancer patient, but it was all I could do. I then set off on the road towards Yazd.

I’d made it a few kilometres to the edge of Na’in when my rear tire went flat. The source of the puncture was easy to find: a comically large nail was sticking out of it. I’d recently swapped the rear wheel and the spare, the 8,000 kilometres I’d put on the original tire having reduced it to a racing slick, and there was no way in hell I was putting that bald thing back on either end of my bike. So, I took my 4th spare tire from the topbox and thought about rebuilding a wheel. Those of you unfamiliar with wheel construction need to know only a few things: this process requires an extremely big and solid flathead screwdriver, a large hammer, an air pump, and a colossal amount of elbow grease. I only had the elbow grease. I laid the bike on its side, got the wheel off, and sat there on the sidewalk staring at it.

I needn’t have been so glum; I was in Iran. Within minutes, a lone passerby named Majid had shanghaied further passers-by into a full-blown pitstop crew with all the required tools. They took over the operation, and protested when I insisted on getting my hands dirty along with them. One guy stood on the bum wheel to hold it steady, while another took an enormous hammer and delivered hundreds of blows on a screwdriver that somebody produced out of thin air. Someone else ran off to find an air pump and pressure gauge. A fourth good Samaritan made it his mission to fetch tea — very important. The two halves of the rim were eventually separated, the semi-inflated tube was fed into the tire, and they maniacally went about putting it all back together while I oversaw operations and sipped on my English Breakfast, city-worker style. (It’s all I was allowed to do.) Not 45 minutes later, I had a brand-spanking-new wheel installed on my bike, inflated to 35 psi, and there was much self-congratulation and tea-drinking all around. They filed in to the nearby grocery store to wash their hands, I thanked them profusely, and off they went to go about their business.

The fastest tire-changing crew in the entire Iranian Plateau

Majid then insisted that I come to his home for some more tea. I wasn’t just playing the taarof game when I said, no, really, I had to be going; it was mid-afternoon at this point and I didn’t want to be riding to Yazd in the dark. He insisted it’d only take 10 minutes. I knew what that meant; in Iran, “tea” means three square meals and a comfy bed for the night, and 10 minutes means 10 hours. There was pleading in his eyes, though, and I relented.

I followed him to the nearby village of Zendevan, a cluster of buildings the colour of the desert on the edge of Na’in, and his home, despite his modest claims to the contrary, was airy and palatial. An economics professor by day and sometime truck driver by night, Majid and his family were on his way to Australia in a few months, where he’d be teaching accounting to recent Iranian emigres. I horsed around with his kids for a while and then played a little Call of Duty with his older son, and I of course got my ass kicked. His wife brought out tea and then some sweets appeared, followed by course after course of proper food. I had to call a stop to it. If I hadn’t, his wife would’ve been roasting an entire goat for me by nightfall.

Iranian Gothic

All the astonishing helpfulness and hospitality of the afternoon took the edge off my frustrations with my bike. Still, I really had to make time — I had less than 10 days left on my Iranian visa. I made my excuses to get going, which was extraordinarily hard to do, and got back on the main road. I’d made my way to the Iranian hinterland. Vegetation was scarce out there, and before long the only features I could see were the road and the electricity pylons running alongside. A stiff desert wind blew through the high-tension power lines, filling the air with a baleful hum as my Vespa coughed and wheezed its way eastwards.

Next stop: Yazd!


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