04 November 2013
Interview: Allan Karl on his round-the-world culinary adventure and new book, FORKS
For the past three years, Allan Karl has been dashing around the world on his BMW F650 Dakar, gathering photos, learning languages, and—most importantly—taking notes on the culinary delights that he’s found. The end result of his crowd-funded journey is his new book FORKS, which details the ride and the best 35 recipes he found in the dozens of countries he visited.
What inspired you to take the trip?
I found that working for the company I had co-founded was no longer fulfilling or challenging and my marriage was failing. As an entrepreneur, I immediately started another company, but soon realized that there was more for me to do. My dream had always been to travel the world, my passions were always photography, writing and motorcycling. I realized that these changes were simply opportunities that allowed me to follow my dream and pursue my passion.
Someone gave me Neil Peart’s book Ghost Rider, and after reading it I thought wow, I can ride my motorcycle from Alaska to Central America, I’d always traveled to Mexico, but beyond? It hadn’t occurred to me. So my original plan was to travel to Panama. I soon kept expanding that until I realized that there was no reason not to shoot for the world.
Why did you decide to travel around the world?
My dream has always been to travel around the world. My passions have always been writing, photography and motorcycling. But with hectic pace of modern life and the pressure to succeed in business and family life often forces people to put their dreams and passions on hold. I know I did.
Then, several years ago, I woke up to the fact that I was jobless — unemployed — and my marriage had ended. I had come to another fork in my life. At first, I started another business. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my work was unfulfilling. I decide that at this fork in my life it was time for me to choose to follow my dream and unleash my passion. That’s when I decided to travel around the world— alone on my motorcycle.
What was the hardest part of preparing?
I invested two years in planning for this trip. Perhaps the most difficult decision I had to make was how to say goodbye to friends and family, while instilling enough optimism in them so they would feel comfortable that this was something that I not only wanted to do, but had to do.
Also, many friends insisted that I wouldn’t make it. That I’d either be kidnapped, killed, or ripped off of everything I had. My friends were convinced the world was hostile and dangerous. I wanted to prove them wrong and share the beauty in humanity and ideally bring stories of this beautiful planet and the kindness of strangers. Convincing them, was not easy.
Finally, the toughest part of preparing for a journey like this, as I learned later, that the important thing is not to plan too much and to allow for the spontaneity and the opportunity to change plans — because that’s truly how to realize all the possibilities.
Did you plan an itinerary in detail before you started, or just let chance lead you?
I researched and planned for two years before embarking on this journey. I had an idea of the route I would take, and identified places I wanted to visit. One of my goals on this journey was to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as I could get to. In the end, I visited more than 40, including the more famous like Machu Pichu as well as the obscure like León, Viejo in Nicaragua.
As I learned more about a region’s history, cultural heritage and taking tips from locals and travelers, I would change plans in a moment. I never had a hotel reservation. I would make sure to visit major cities on a regular basis so that I could service my motorcycle and have better chance of access to spare parts and other necessities.
What did you bring that you didn’t need?
Great question. I brought a mosquito net that I never used, despite being in tropical and malaria-risk areas. I also brought a small hose that I thought I would need to use if I ever was fuel-challenged and needed to siphon fuel from others. I was warned by other GS650 riders that the possibility for fuel pump failure was high. So brought a fuel pump repair kit in including the impeller. Never needed it.
What did you need that you didn’t bring?
To be honest, nothing. There were many things that I brought that I could have done without. I think travelers tend to overpack. We over think the potential disasters or problems. Yet, in the end most of what anyone needs can be found anywhere on this planet. We don’t need much. I brought extra batteries for my headlamp and other things. In reality, you don’t need to carry these things. You can always find them.
How did you deal with all the different languages?
I love trying to learn languages. When traveling alone, we are forced to communicate. And traveling overland we travel to places that are not touristed and often difficult to find anyone who speaks any English.
So, in Latin America I became fluent in Spanish, but when crossing into Brazil, I felt like an infant. I could make noises and I could hear, but I couldn’t understand people and they couldn’t understand me.
I spent an entire evening in Sao Paulo Brazil with three guys who didn’t speak any English, yet with a stack of napkins and a pen I learned an amazing amount of Portuguese.
In Egypt, I not only learned key Arabic phrases but was able to use the Arabic numerals to write my license plate number and to identify pricing and other signs in restaurants and elsewhere.
Ethiopia was challenging. They speak Amharic. And it was perhaps the toughest. Though I did learn if you try to speak and communicate, it’s the best icebreaker and brings people together. So I went out of my way to ask. This is extremely important
Where did you sleep each night?
Most important thing for me, was not where I was going to sleep, but where I would park my motorcycle. Security for the bike was important. So I would stay in hostels, guest houses, little motels, and often the homes of locals. I would camp, too. As long as I had secure parking for the bike, a reasonable priced room and food, I was happy.
Did you make friends or riding buddies along the way?
I met another American rider from Colorado in Mexico and we rode together. In Argentina, I met local riders who I befriended. In Brazil, there is a huge motorcycle community with dozens of clubs in each city or town. They went out of their way to see that a club in the next town I was traveling to would be able to meet me and share with me their club, friends and more.
In Namibia I met a South African rider, Ronnie. We spent three weeks or so riding from Botswana to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. He had friends in Malawi who we stayed with for a few nights. And I was amazed that in South Africa I met a couple riding a V-Strom two-up who I met more than a year earlier in Mexico. We rode and camped together for a week in South Africa.
How did your body deal with the food?
I had only two bouts in three years with food related illness. In Peru and in South Africa. I love the food. This is why I insisted that my book about this journey and adventure included real local food — the recipes, the stories and the photos. Food is an important part of understanding culture, but it’s also the most common thing strangers connect with — over food or drink — or in the kitchen preparing meals. Too often travelers avoid local food and try to stick to their comfort zone. I believe this is a grave mistake. Explore, discover and satiate not only your appetite but your curiosity.
What kind of gear were you wearing?
I wore the BMW Motorrad Rallye riding jacket and pants. It’s a very-well armored textile suit with great venting, a zip in GoreTex liner, which I used not only for wet riding, but as a layer for cold riding. I used SiDI Discovery motorcycle boots and HELD gloves — the Steve’s for day-to-day riding and a heavier pair for cold weather.
I used an Italian-brand Helmet: Justissimo, but sadly it’s no longer available in the USA, so I cannot replace the face shield, so I’m looking to find a suitable replacement.
Is gas the same everywhere?
Ha! Not in your life. Two things: Price and Quality. Bolivia has perhaps the poorest quality fuel I found. So much so that when I was crossing Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, the shabby ferry had rotted plans and a poor ramp that when exiting the boat my bike tipped over and fuel spilled in to the bilge.
I thought the Bolivian ferry operator was angry when he ran up to me, but he said in Spanish, “Aha, you have gas from Peru in your bike don’t you?” He could tell by the smell of the gas that had spilled I had Peruvian gas—a much higher octane. Gas prices fluctuated dramatically. Even within a country such as Argentina where in the Patagonian region where gas exploration continues, the fuel is subsidized and costs less.
Brazil fuel is questionable, though you can find very high octane in major cities, in the rural areas, it’s low octane and mixed with ethanol.
Did you use special insurance?
I purchased Med-Jet Assist medical evacuation insurance. But health insurance from US isn’t accepted outside our country. So before leaving I downgraded my plan to simply emergency insurance, as I didn’t need the doctor visits and prescription plans that are common.
Did you crash?
I crashed in the middle of nowhere in Bolivia on a muddy dirt road where my bike slipped out from under me and I fell into the mud with my 500 pound bike crashing on top of me and crushing my leg, breaking it into three pieces. I had to use that Medi-vac insurance, though even with that insurance it took three days to get me and then three flights and more than 20 hours to get home.
I returned to California for surgery and after months of rehab I returned to get my bike and continue my journey. Three days after commencing my journey in Bolivia, I crashed again on a horrible bridge that had railroad tracks running down the center
– the bridge was shared with vehicular and rail traffic.
In Tanzania a dala-dala, mini-bus ran me off the road into a ditch, and in Ethiopia a huge bus took a wide turn on an up hill blind decreasing radius curve, I was going down hill, and had to lay my bike down or I would have gone off a 100 foot cliff. I was okay.
What was the most dangerous situation?
I think my accidents were the most dangerous. I never felt afraid, or in jeopardy. People are good. While I was prudent and followed my intuition. I also smile always. And with the few words of the local language and a honest curiosity, my confidence and friendliness contributed, I’m sure, to my very positive experiences with people — even in the most dangerous and challenging situations.
What were the worst mechanical difficulties?
I broke my side-stand and the safety switch cuts off power to the BMW’s brain or computer. Even with my spare side-stand safety switch that I replaced, I feared that welding the side-stand caused me to fry the computer. But I took the switch off and put on again and removed the computer and put it back in and the bike started. Other than that, I had no big issues. Just replacing sprockets, breaks, fuel and oil filters. I did replace the clutch cable and due to the dust, mud and tough conditions I had to replace fork seals three times.
How many sets of tires did you use?
13, front, 9 rear; amazingly I had only one flat
What kind of bike were you riding?
I rode a 2005 BMW F650GS Dakar
What made you decide to stop the trip?
After three years and 62,000 miles, I was in Turkey and tried once more to get a visa for entrance into Iran. And for the third time the Iranians turned me down. That’s when I realized then it was time to go home. So I shipped my motorcycle to Baltimore, Maryland and then continued my journey from Washington, D.C. across the United States, riding only on the backroads, not on interstate highways. I returned and finished my journey where I started, in Newport Beach, California.
What were the three most beautiful places you visited on your journey?
Beauty can be defined in so many ways. There’s the physical, the emotional and the spiritual. Argentina has so much to offer and for many people it’s more accessible and perceivably safer than other places that resonated with me. I found Ethiopia to be so rich in culture, history and I’m excited to return. Historically and from the curiosity of the people who embraced my mission, the country, rather the people of Syria were among the most amazing I met. Furthermore, the history and culture that I found deeply embedded in both Damascus and Aleppo just opened my eyes and mind to the potential of that reason—and the human condition. It saddens me to think what is happening to that country.
You have combined a book about a motorcycle adventure, a photo book and a cookbook in one. Since any one of these would keep an author busy, why did you decide to combine the three?
I planned to write a traditional travelog/memoir, but when I returned home after three years of travel, I realized that the best way to truly share this incredible journey and the experiences that so moved me was to provide readers with a similar experience.
That is to allow them to see the world through photographs, to feel the world by reading stories of connections and cultures and to taste it the flavors of the world through photos and recipes of real local food.
So this is how, in FORKS, I share the discoveries, cultures and connections I made on my global adventure—stories, color photos and flavors—FORKS brings the world to the readers tables and this adventure to life: the kindness of strangers, beauty of humanity, colors of culture and the powerful gift of human connection.