Around the Earth with Glen Heggstad
Awhile ago, on motorcycle ride from California to the tip of South America, capture by a Colombian Marxist army was not what I had in mind, yet on one quiet sunny afternoon, on a remote Andean highway, there wasn’t a choice. Marched at gunpoint into the mountains outside of Medellín, at that moment I knew that life would never be the same. During five grueling weeks as an involuntary guest of The National Liberation Army, they eventually broke my spirit with head-games and torture. When I was finally freed in a Christmas prisoner exchange with the Colombian government, as an ultimate act of defiance against my captures, I continued my original goal of riding to the tip of South America and back. But once returning to California, after one too many restless nights, I discovered that recovery would be more difficult than anticipated, and although I was back in Palm Springs, it was still a long road home. During late evenings and early mornings of teeth grinding turmoil, I eventually concluded that the only way to restore my psychological health and dignity was to continue what I had been doing—riding motorcycles to exotic lands. My silent mantra illuminating the path to positive thought became, “Living well is the best revenge.”
But since I had already tackled South America, the new goal would become traversing the entire globe on a motorcycle. At first, friends and family still weary from the Colombian ordeal couldn’t accept what I needed to do, and debated my logic by recounting current headlines touting increasing international terrorism and an impatient world furious over American foreign policy.
But for a man still reeling from a firsthand experience of human madness, there was no other way to contend with such a festering wound of perpetual personal doubt and deepening emptiness. I needed to find out what was really out there and hopefully confirm a suspicion that humanity was not inherently evil. Yet in a post-9/11 climate of fear, throughout Western societies, alarm was increasing with news of more terrorist plots.
Jerked from a slumbering state of denial, on September 11, 2001, the United States of America had been savagely attacked with its own technology and more was promised. From bombings to kidnappings, evidence of constant threats in a volatile world was blasting across our TV screens. Scheming terrorists want helpless citizens to cringe in fear. When we hide at home, they win. In a frightening over-reaction, would America ultimately strangle under it’s own self-imposed security? Unable to defeat us militarily, could Osama bin Laden and others like him, win the most strategic battle, unwittingly aided by our own political masters manipulating voters into judging national leaders on emotion-provoking sound bites?
As a nervous US Congress inched toward smothering the Constitution, would an Orwellian prophecy become a reality? With a proliferation of street corner TV cameras and an abuse of wiretapping regulations, lawmakers mindful of appearing unpatriotic, were looking the other way. And Americans were beginning to accept the concept of Big Brother protecting us. After all, who would vote against bills cleverly labeled The Patriot Act and Homeland Security? Yet while struggling from paycheck to paycheck, Americans were either confronted with tales of terror or droned into mediocrity with celebrity gossip and “Reality TV.” The lack of truthful, relevant information was numbing.
For me the decision was simple and final, I had to clear my head with a journey into the real world, the Developing World, and examine that world through the eyes of those who live there. And for Westerners abroad during the most uncertain political climate in history, traveling the earth alone was more than an adventurous challenge; it was a direct message to terrorists wherever they lurk. We are not afraid. But more important, we refuse to hate.
On a fifty-two-thousand mile odyssey exclusively through developing nations across five continents, I stumbled upon a startling realization. We, the American people, have been deceived. Nearly every preconceived notion derived from our national media is proven false. Meeting the people of planet earth face to face as a lone traveler becomes an opportunity to discover firsthand that we are all the same--and sometimes even related. Eventually, a suspected truth surfaces; governments may not get along, but people do.
From lopsided Middle East horror stories to rumors of ruthless Russians, one by one, foolishly concocted myths are dispelled as poverty-stricken strangers invite this wandering motorcyclist into their wooden shacks offering their last crumbs of bread. But riding the earth alone wasn’t easy and plenty went wrong contending with daily challenges of harsh weather, difficult terrain and explosive geopolitical events. Despite a year of planning, at times, during the steady variation in circumstance and necessity to take chances, I was nearly sucked over the edge. Enduring hypothermia while riding mud roads through Siberian tornados led to the blissful solitude of the Mongolian Plains with an electrifying jolt into adventure and humanity. In a Munich hospital, with congested kidneys nearing failure, I wondered, isn’t there a safer way for a man to restore himself? Later, a reckless mid-winter crossing of Eastern Turkey’s frozen Anatolian Plateau nearly disrupted the journey until spring.
Sitting cross-legged in a Syrian Bedouin’s tent silently sipping tea while American fighter jets patrolled skies over nearby Iraq, I pondered--Who would have thought the odyssey would lead to this? While traveling Egypt, in spite of eluding mandatory military escorts, my journey through the ancient Nile Valley was peaceful with throngs of young Arabs gathering to shake my hand. A sunrise climb of Mount Sinai took my breath the same as it did for Moses when he accepted the Ten Commandments. And later that night, with distant gazes into their dancing campfire, a nomadic Bedouin chieftain described life under Israeli occupation—“Paradise.”
After granted a special-entry permit from the commander of Israeli Defense Forces, on Election Day in Gaza, I was cornered by Palestinian thugs from Hammas and the question arose—are my feet too close to the flames? Stranded in the Sadar District of Karachi while terrorists blew up mosques and hunted Westerners, fate was taunted once more by flipping a coin for the next destination—India or Afghanistan?
On the Nepali border, coughing up black soot in a dollar-a-night flophouse, I was anxious to ride into the sporadic violence of civil disorder to escape the madness of Indian roadways. Yanked to my knees while visiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia, it took the innocent smiles of bashful natives to eventually revive a wobbling faith in humanity. Weary from a year of tumultuous travel, the steamy massage parlors of Bangkok provided sensuous mid-journey relief before heading south to Indonesia where the wilds of Borneo set my imagination ablaze while establishing a world’s record as the first person to circle the island on two wheels. But while touring Sumatra I found that nothing could prepare me for the horrors of Tsunami ravaged Banda Aceh. Saving the best for last, it was the soft humility and alien ferocity of Africa that fulfilled a dream that began during a turbulent youth.
Adventuring must be in my Norwegian blood. As a foolishly bold kid anxious to accept dares, life was always more interesting if challenging the norms. But eating worms, jumping off of roofs or being the first to test out new rope swings was unsettling behavior for hand-wringing parents. After spending more time in detention than studying, and wearing down wood on the principal’s bench, counselors were summoned. Standard warnings and punishments had no effect. To my mother’s horror, at the age of twelve, my father suggested constructing a homebuilt, mini-scooter using an old lawnmower engine. The freedom and power of a motorized bike was like a match to gasoline for a troubled young rebel growing up in the Sixties. A lifetime lust for adventure had been ignited. Yet yielding to authority was the program for more obedient classmates and I found myself breaking the rules no matter the consequence. Fiercely independent and anti-authority, a constant rejection of the status quo made me feel more alive. In high school, while others were elected most likely to succeed, my teachers often remarked that I would surely spend life behind bars. I did--handlebars.
Thank you for tuning into this thread which I thought could be best explained with short excerpts from my best-selling, second book. While on this journey of a lifetime, I discovered how much we earthlings really are alike and will be posting a number of unpublished photographs of the people who I met along the way.
With zero knowledge of photography, I purchased a Sony 828 five megapixel camera and just tried to remember keeping the sun behind me as I pointed and shot my way around the planet. Strapping it to my chest and ready to fire, I was able to capture thousands of faces that I can never forget. National Geographic Channel made a docu-drama about my first book about being taken prisoner by Colombian rebels and subsequently, they purchased eighteen pics from my collection of seven thousand.
Because I was so struck by the multitudes of cultures and people who cared for me over several years, mostly images of human faces will be posted. This is a photo essay of us, the human race. Upon returning to US soil, when asked "What was the hardest part of the journey?"
The answer was quick, "Saying good bye to those whom cared for me sharing their last crumbs of food--and realizing that I would never see them again."
When asked if I had any regrets, the answer was "Yes, I wish that I would have stayed one more day, everywhere."
That's the reason 100% of my royalties from both books are donated to international aid organizations building schools in the developing world.
Here is my route around the earth starting from California through Mexico and Central America to South America and back. And then air freighting into Japan to catch the ferry over to Vladivostok, Siberia.
Between the rebels siezing my equipment in Colombia and hotel thieves stealing my laptop on the return leg in Panama, except for images sent home by email, most all of my photos of the South American leg were lost. Hence we skip and fast-forward.
Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. It's a significant event when girls turn fifteen.
Indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico
Children's dancing festival in Granada, Nicaragua
San Salvador, El Salvador
An interview with CBS News, 48 Hours in Ecuador after released from the rebels
This insect larvae had grown inside my shoulder after a botfly laid its egg in my flesh while I was chained to a tree as a guest of the ELN.
The village doctor pulling it out.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Campesinos protest government regulations by closing city exits and high mountain roads.
But after a brief confrontation/explanation, we became friends and I was the only person allowed to pass.
Just starting to snow
After having a flat tire and nearly out of fuel in the boondocks, these folks rescued me off of snow stormy mountain, bringing me to the nearest city.
My helpers at the Peruvian/Bolivian border
La Paz, Bolivia
A high altitude crisscrossing of the Andes off pavement had it's complications.
The Bolivian Altiplano at 16,000 feet
Planar de Salar The Salt Plains at 14,000 feet
Dining on llama meat with locals in their cave
Roaming the earth alone on two wheel allows much time for introspection and re-evaluating lifelong values, goals and perspectives on life. During almost a hundred thousand miles of peering into the lives of others whom I seldom shared a language with, I was amazed at how we could communicate when we wanted to. When first crossing an international border, I managed to memorize the Five Ws and a few basic phrases to find what I needed and to explain not to put onions in my food.
What started out as a necessary response to an ugly event in Colombia, my ultimate act of defiance became a fascinating journey into the landscape of humanity. Inching my way around the planet allowed me to witness and record the footprints of history etched upon the faces of those whom I shared moments with or sometimes days. The simple truth is that I fell in love with several thousand people who bear little physical resemblance to myself while we share the same yearnings of peace and freedom. EARTH RIDE was the ultimate opportunity to explore alien cultures and to marvel at our similarities while celebrating our differences.
I hope that you don't mind pictures of girls from around the world
On July 5th, 2004, I air-freighted my bike from Los Angeles to Tokyo in order to ride across the island to the Fushiki ferryboat landing. Local riders hosted a weekend outing in the country.
From there, it was a quick sail across the Sea of Japan to Vladivostok, on the edge of the Russian Far East. But first I had to deal with this Customs Inspector
Then connect with the local boys
And local girls...
Whoops, here are some better examples.
I am a huge fan of yours, follow your advrider thread, have your book and we had communicated while I tried to convince one of the two local BMW dealerships to get you over here for a presentation.
Do you have any Seattle dates lined up for '09.
Nice post, Glen. Too bad you missed out on Iran (I followed your posts when I was trying to get in!)
"I wish I had stayed one more day everywhere." I agree.
BTW--this is going to be a long ride report
About a third of the ten thousand kilometer Trans-Siberian Highway is raw dirt, mud and snow--the rest is mangled or wavy two-lane asphalt. Small impoverished towns are spaced a hundred miles apart with little in between except vast empty forests and swamplands buzzing with billions of mosquitos. But Siberian smoke-filled roadside cafes were always a welcome break from the monotony of riding long hours into 11:00PM northern latitude sunsets.
Like everywhere in the world, it was those with the least who shared the most. Mornings after late-evening meals, many a humble, friendly Russian offered me their last crumbs of bread and chunks of ultra-fatty pork--but still, they furiously rejected attempts at stuffing bills of rubles into their heavily calloused hands. Slapping their chests with powerful arms declaring, "Hospitality comes from the heart!"
Russians at roadside meal-stops would often offer small gifts and sign currency bills as souvenirs. And of course the vodka flowed like water into a startling display of alcoholism. Knowing that I would soon meet them on the road somwhere, it was unnerving watching truck drivers suck down several one-liter bottles over breakfast.
Gracias amigo. Although BMW North America does sponsor my EARTH RIDE! multimedia shows, because it's so far to travel from Mazatlan, I need to do a few events per trip north. So far, we have done twenty six shows across the US and they want to book me for another season. The trouble is coordinating dealers to do several presentations in the same region within the same week. So far, this is very difficult. Most of my appearances are the result of riders hammering away at their local dealers until they cough up $2,500, air fare and hotel to hire me.
My wife and I are planning a C.America, S.America and Africa trip to leave in 2010; so hopefully we can meet in Mexico.
I would like to compliment you on your writing skills. You have done a good job writing and it makes it hard for a regular guy to step up and communicate. However, that should never stop anyone.
Thanks for the detailed introduction. You did a great job of summarizing what has taken me years to read (and view). I read your book before I rode to South America and have kept up with your posts in other areas including your detailed and documented past.
I feel priviledged to have had the opportunity to get to stop by your Mazaltan location and have dinner with you (on your birthday). It was very heartwarming for you to welcome us into your home and share your personal time with us. It is very much appreciated.
Additionally, the most impressive of all is your attitude about everything in general and especially toward the people of all the other countries. It is inspirational for all. Keep up the great work.
Interesting blog Glenn. Terrible that you were captured in S. America. Great you are OK. Terrorism really is a curse, whether it comes from Pakistan, Europe, the US or some of the countries in South/Central America. The Monro Doctrine really has caused problems all over that continent.
You were right to go back on the road, and pick up the pieces again.
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