In November, I'll be quitting my job and heading out on one of the last true adventures left on earth: Driving around the world.
I'll spend about a year on the road, starting and finishing in New York. When I can't drive, I'll ship the car by boat, then fly to the next stop to pick it up.
The route is sinuous. Cross Central America, then head down South America to Buenos Aires. From there, I'll ship the car to South Africa, then drive north through Africa to Europe. I'm a native of France, so I'll stop in Paris to get some paperwork done, then go east through Eastern Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and India. I'll ship the car to Thailand, drive to Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia, and put the car on a final sailing home to the U.S.
My blog about the trip, where I'll post updates from the road, is called “Trans World Expedition: The year of living dangerously.” I hope it will be a good tool for people who want to do a similar trip.
It is scary to leave your girlfriend, your career, your apartment and people you know to have a year of waking up in unfamiliar places. Many people think I'm insane to quit my job when the economy is so bad. But I'm 33 and I've worked since age 18. I came to New York as an artist and ended up as an art director. It's early enough in my life that I can take a year off, then come back, hopefully pick up my career and start a family.
I believe a trip like this is something many people dream of. When you're young and a student, you don't have money to travel, but when you're working and can afford it, you don't have time. I always thought I would buy a place in New York, but when you think about it, is there a better investment than traveling around the world? Wouldn't you be smarter after doing that? Wouldn't you have incredible stories to tell your kids and grandkids?
My path will change depending on places I discover, tips, climate, where I can catch a boat, driving conditions, and visas. Staying out of trouble will also determine my route and how long I stay in one place.
Driving around the world may be more difficult now than it was in the 1960s, even though cars are more reliable and roads are better. Wars and civil unrest have eased in Latin America, but the crossing the Middle East is now a challenge. Here are some problems I'll face:
- Darien Gap: This 100-mile-long area of swamps and mountainous jungle separates Panama and Colombia. There is no road, no police or military. The inhabitants are tribes, guerrillas and drug traffickers. Solution: Ship the car from Panama to Colombia, and go myself in a small plane over the jungle. Pray that no emergency landings are required.
- Africa: Visas for Chad and Sudan are difficult to obtain, making west-to-east travel impossible. I'll need to get through Angola, but again, visas are hard to get. In Nigeria, I'll have to worry about kidnapping, carjacking, roadblock robberies and other violent crimes. Solution: Get a visa for Angola in South Africa, my first stop on the continent, and get across trouble spots like Nigeria as quickly as possible.
- Iran: Once inside the country, no problem. Great place, nice people, few incidents reported by travelers. But I worry about arguments between countries that could lead to border closings. Solution: Get my visa in order and hope my government doesn't get too excited about political events before I get there.
- Pakistan: Suicide bombings. Taliban insurgents. Imagine how much fun it will be to cross this country with New York license plates. Solution: Go as fast as possible, perhaps with the military escort some foreigners use when driving overland. I'm told the soldiers drive like New York cabbies.
- Asia: China makes overland travel expensive by requiring you to hire a government-approved “guide” to take with you. Myanmar's borders are closed to overland travel. Solution: Ship the car from India or Bangladesh to Thailand or Singapore.
In order to afford a year on the road, there's little choice but camping. I wish I could say I have no problem with scorpions in my shoes, and that whenever I catch a snake, I'm happy to have it for breakfast, but I can't. After some research, I discovered most overlanders in Africa use a rooftop tent. The cheapest are expensive at $850, but they let you sleep anywhere, out of the mud, and they pop up in minutes.
Other equipment: fridge for the car, stove that runs on unleaded gasoline, lanterns, water cans, small pop-up tent with portable toilet and shower. Added costs: $800.
There are not many choices when it comes to choosing a car for such journeys. In my opinion, only two vehicles can make it, Toyota Land Cruisers and British-made Land Rover Defenders. Both are tough, and you can find spare parts on all continents. Others, including American makes, are good quality, but you can't find parts everywhere. Land Cruisers are used by the U.N. and other non-governmental organizations around the world. Thanks to the economic crisis and the abundance of used cars available, I got a clean 1996 LC with 92,000 miles for less than $7,000.
I can no longer count how many hours I spent getting the LC ready. I upgraded the suspensions so the truck could handle difficult terrain and carry all the equipment, including tools, extra battery, spare parts, cooking equipment, roof tent, water and gas cans, books and luggage. I installed a drawer system for storage. I upgraded the electrical system to run several devices for days before running out of juice.
Other equipment and modifications included a roof rack, reinforced front bumper, safety devices so people don't steal my new home, bolting metal plates behind windows in the back to create a secure cargo area for my belongings, and bolting a safe to the frame. Added costs: $3,000. I budgeted $4,000 for repairs on the road, though I hope to use only a fraction of it.
I did nearly all the work on the car myself. Expect to pay double if you order pre-made systems or if you go to a shop to have things installed.
Shipping a car is expensive. I'll have to do it at least five times, sometimes for 100 miles, sometimes between two continents. Shipping costs: around $7,000, plus $2,000 for my air travel while the car is at sea. Gas will range from 38 cents a gallon in Iran to $7.40 a gallon in Portugal. Add $5,000 for gas.
This trip requires many vaccinations, some covered by insurance, many not. Getting them all in the U.S. would cost more than $500. So I'll get some of them in Mexico, my first stop, where it's cheaper.
Yellow fever vaccination is required for South America and Africa; in fact, you need proof of the shot to get through many borders. The same is true in some African countries for the cholera vaccine. Hepatitis A requires two shots, hepatitis B requires three, so you need to start those early. Sometimes these can be bundled together with typhoid shots.
You need three shots for Japanese encephalitis, which is carried by mosquitoes in rural areas. Tetanus shots last 10 years, so you may need one of those too. Your doctor will advise you to get a shot for rabies. If not, you can get immunized within two days of a bite.
I asked my doctor for a strong antibiotic to take with me, and for a letter authorizing me to carry a syringe in case I need a blood test somewhere and the local needles look shady.
There is no malaria vaccine. Pills to prevent infection have side effects, but if you get infected, you can take a heavier dose of the same drug. I'll also take measures to avoid mosquito bites — repellant, net.
I have a first-aid kit and if I need medical care, I'll go to local doctors and hope it won't cost much. I bought insurance in case a super-bad event requires evacuation. It would not be helpful to survive an accident only to have a heart attack when I receive a huge bill for evacuation to my home country. I found a policy from InsuranceToGo.com that should run around $600 for the year with a $500 deductible.
My estimated total for the trip is $46,000, including car and tent; shipping the car five times while flying myself; gas and repairs; insurance and vaccinations. Other costs include $550 for visas; $300 for maps and guidebooks; $10 a day for food and $4,000 for campgrounds and occasional nights in hotels. I plan on spending less, bur prefer to take unforeseen events into account.
I've read about other people driving around the world, and their blogs and reports helped me prepare, especially with paperwork and vehicle modifications. Some of them got sponsors for their trips. But I didn't want to have to find a reason to be on the road, like fighting a disease, when at the end, I am just curious about the world I live in.
And that's it. I leave Nov. 15. Time to start a new episode of my life.