Last month, this little trip of ours was still a fanciful notion. It was happening, sure, but we didn't know exactly when and we didn't know exactly where, and we still lacked the requisite paperwork and inoculations to get us across the African continent, let alone the world. This month, things are a bit more real. Here's the latest.
The flights are booked! Three weeks ago, we purchased one-way, nonrefundable tickets from Washington, DC to Cape Town, South Africa. We leave July 6.
Our first flight will deliver us, overnight, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We'll switch planes. The subsequent ride from Ethiopia to South Africa will take about five hours, feature air-conditioning and meal service, and may very well find us sleeping the whole way through. The return ride from South Africa to Ethiopia will take about five months, offer very little in the way of creature comforts, and probably demand more of us than anything we've ever done.
Once we get back to Ethiopia, though, we should be all set. At the end of April our Ethiopian visas arrived in the mail, granting us thirty days of overland entry anytime during the next two years. It's not exactly a ton of time to pedal a thousand miles across Africa's most mountainous country, but it'll have to do. Ethiopian visa extensions are notoriously difficult and expensive to get a hold of.
With Ethiopian paperwork settled, our passports were sent off to the Indian Embassy (or rather their contractor, as the Indian Embassy outsources its visa processing nowadays). We paid about $130 each for a six-month, multiple-entry visa with ten-year validity. A week later, they were ready for pickup.
The results were mixed. I was granted a visa, good until 2027, without incident. Lauren was (inexplicably) given a visa good only until May 2018. Now, for most people on most trips, a visa good until next May would be more than enough. But our journey is a long one, with an uncertain pace and uncertain arrival dates. It's possible we'll be in India by this time next year—if we're compelled to skip some section of Africa or Europe or central Asia for whatever reason—but realistically, that visa is likely to expire while we're still scrambling over the mountains of eastern Turkey or being blown around the plains of southern Kazakhstan.
Fortunately, it appeared the Embassy of India had recently begun to host open houses every fortnight to address visa grievances. Lauren was out of town, so I headed to the Indian Embassy here in Washington a few weeks ago to see what, if anything, could be done to postpone her visa's expiration.
The open house, held in a dark basement, was characteristic of India's famous hospitality. Sodas from the fridge were brought into the waiting room, bags of chips were offered to folks in queue, and homemade samosas were put out for anyone to try. Alas, it was also characteristic of India's infamous bureaucracy. After a ninety-minute wait, I was given about thirty seconds to plead my case before being told that there's simply nothing that could be done. Issued visas cannot be extended. Exact quote: "this is not our problem; it's yours."
Indeed it is. This leaves us in a bit of a bind. Lauren can't apply for a new visa until her current one expires next May, but India generally doesn't issue multiple-month, multiple-entry visas to anyone applying outside their home country. The multiple-entry bit is important, as we'd really love to bike though Nepal, and India surrounds it on both sides (entering or exiting through China-occupied Tibet is, of course, not an option). If we can't manage getting Lauren a suitable visa on the road, we're unsure whether we'll be able to visit India at all.
That won't get figured out for some time. Plan B is and has been to cross China. Like India, China offers a ten-year visa option to Americans, and insists on applications being submitted from one's country of permanent residence. Unlike India, China requires a detailed itinerary of a preplanned trip, along with copies of confirmed flights and booked hotels (or a letter of invitation). We have none of those things, hardly even an expected year of arrival. So over our remaining few weeks home in the States, we'll have to decide whether to apply anyway, stretch a few truths, and risk getting denied a visa we can actually use, or to skip the application, hit the road, and just cross our fingers for an understanding consular officer or a policy change somewhere along the way.
Except for the stretch from central to southeast Asia, then, we have just about all the paperwork we need to start biking around the world. Entry is visa-free and/or a mere formality for the first three countries we'll enter—South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana—with plenty of time allowed to explore each. Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi all offer point-of-entry visas to Americans for a fee (Zimbabwe and Malawi aren't essential to our route, but we may detour through anyway). Tanzanian visas require a consular visit and a day or so of waiting, and the joint East African Tourist Visa, granting access to Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, can probably be processed online.
Whether we continue on from Ethiopia to Sudan and Egypt is still a big question (the answer to which will be partly decided by whether we can get a hold of Sudanese visas, and partly by the conditions in Ethiopia and Egypt—both of which are in a state of emergency—six months from now). Assuming we do arrive in Egypt overland, we'll almost certainly be taking a flight to Europe (it's really the only way across the Mediterranean at the moment), and from there, we're expecting smooth sailing, with little need for our passports, all the way to central Asia.
Frenzied readying continues in other ways. We've been getting jabbed in the arms for the better part of the past month with all sorts of vaccinations. Lauren's been packing up her room, and I'm all set to move my house in two weeks. We each have just a few days left in the office before our jobs come to their respective ends. Our gear is mostly assembled and our bikes will be going in for a final tune-up soon. All the big stuff is accounted for and we're now just gathering up the little things, like spare inner tubes and brake pads. Bank accounts have been partitioned off for different purposes: daily spending, unexpected costs, budget overruns. I've hosted a number of travelers through Warmshowers (a great little website pairing bike tourers with hosts for a few nights' stay), which we're sure to use once we hit the road.
Oh, and that test ride I mentioned last month? It ended up raining, so we canceled and had a little staycation instead. That probably doesn't say much for our wherewithal to circumnavigate the planet—I'm sure we'll be getting rained on more than a few times—but so it goes.
And so, we're just five weeks away from embarking on the biggest, scariest, and (we hope) most rewarding journey of our lives. There's not much left to do now: move a house, pack a few bikes, see some friends the last time for a while, get on a plane and hope for the best. Expect another boring update or two between now and then. And then the fun begins.