Sick on the side of the road

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As we sit at JFK Airport waiting to fly back to Morocco, it’s time to start tackling the backlog of posts we never wrote when we frantically wrapped up the trip last summer. We had a lot of nice people help us during part 1 of our trip including family, friends, family of friends who took us in when we were soaking wet and dried our clothes, friends of family of friends who let us stay in their home, strangers who brought me a soda and water and let me use their bathroom while I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of their house for 5 hours while Jackie got motorcycle parts… and so on.

On our grueling paced ride through Morocco we had a day of riding a remote, twisty mountain pass through the High Atlas between Marrakech and Taroudant. It was a really hot day and with fumes of gasoline literally squeaking out of the gas cap below Aron’s face, he started feeling sick. Heat plus gas fumes plus twisty turns is a pretty good way to make Aron motion sick, as he has learned at a couple indoor go kart tracks. Aron was just trying to keep riding, but Jackie could hear him suffering through our intercoms and suggested we turn around and stop at the roadside store we had passed a couple hundred yards before, since it was the only “town” we had seen for miles.

We stopped, and Jackie alternated between asking Aron how he was feeling and talking to the owner of the store, our soon to be new friend, Brahim. While Aron was basically incapacitated, Jackie and Brahim made small talk in french and waited for Aron’s motion sickness to pass. Aron sat on the stoop of Brahim’s shop with his head between his legs for about 10 minutes before he started throwing up. Brahim immediately brought him a cold bottle of water, some oranges to eat, and a bucket of water to clean his face and hands.

After 45 minutes with a couple rounds of vomiting and some trips to the squat toilet in the basement of the mosque down the road, Aron started feeling well enough to stand, but he was questioning whether this was in fact motion sickness, since his motion sickness doesn’t usually last this long after he stops moving. We confirmed that this wasn’t in fact motion sickness when a few minutes later, Jackie followed in Aron’s footsteps. She ran off to the the decomposing shell of a Land Rover about 20 feet away, and it was her turn to vomit. First Jackie was taking care of Aron. Then Aron was taking care of Jackie. But mostly Brahim was taking care of us both.

Brahim’s French was perfect, Jackie’s was conversational, and Aron’s consisted of whatever was close enough to English and Spanish words for me to understand. We told him about our trip. He told us about his family and the ethnic Berber village we were in, which consisted of about twelve families total. We watched as he greeted every customer and a majority of the truck drivers driving down the road by name, and as he vouched for us to people who came by as we sat and recovered. It was pretty clear that the whole village new we were there and it felt like Brahim had taken us in as his guests.

We sat and talked to him for two or three hours before thinking about getting back on the road. We didn’t really know how far it was until the next hotel or when it would get dark, but Brahim said we could sleep in the village and motioned to the cement area in front of a storage hut across the street. We decided to get back on the road, but changed our minds when the physical exertion of trying to roll the motorcycles resulted in more vomiting.

After another hour or so of recuperating, we re-parked the bikes and set up our sleeping mats under the stars. It wasn’t the most restful sleep being out in the open with the occasional truck rumbling by, but Brahim told us we would be safe and we trusted him. In the morning, the chief of the village came by with three glasses a pot of mint tea and we sat with him as he cracked walnuts for us and attempted conversation.

We certainly hadn’t planned to spend the night in a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, and we hadn’t planned to get food poisoning. But if either of those things were to happen (and they did), we completely lucked out on the hospitality front, meeting some of the nicest, most generous people that we met on our whole trip. And we made a new friend as a result.

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Brahim’s shop and the decomposing Land Rover.

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View of the village from where we slept.

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View of Brahim’s shop from where we slept.

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Aron and Brahim in the shop.

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Brahim in his shop.

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Our night’s accommodations.

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Postponing the rest of the trip

About two weeks ago, we landed back in Boston to get Jackie’s knee some proper medical attention. It’s a good thing we did, because it turns out she had a super rare knee injury that required urgent surgery.

Jackie had an avulsion fracture of the tibia where the ACL attaches to the tibia. This basically means that instead of tearing her ACL, she chipped a whole bone fragment off where the ACL attaches to the tibia. The injury had the same symptoms as an ACL tear (because her ACL was basically hanging useless, attached to the bone fragment), except the surgery is urgent (lest the bone heal in the wrong place). This particular injury is apparently common in children, but incredibly rare in adults. The orthopedic surgeon had only seen this injury one other time in an adult patient.

Last week, Jackie had surgery on her knee to suture the bone fragment back in place so it can heal properly, and now she’s starting to walk with a robot-looking brace.

Unfortunately, this is the end of our epic journey. For now. Jackie needs to heal and learn how to walk again, and then we simply don’t have the time before work starts up again. We need about a month to finish the trip, and we hope we can find the time to do it. But we also have a lot planned this year, so there’s a chance it simply won’t happen. We’ll see.

In the meantime, we’re going to post a few old stories on this blog. One from when we spent a night hanging out with a Berber shop owner in the Atlas mountains, and one from when the incredibly friendly staff at Ocean Vagabond in Dakhla helped us get everything in order before we flew home. Stories are forthcoming soon!

A Setback

We’re on our way back to Boston. Jackie had a low speed fall in soft sand in Dakhla, Western Sahara on Monday evening. She twisted her knee and it’s very swollen. She can’t walk or support weight on it. Other than that and a big bruise on her thigh she’s ok. There’s much more to tell in another post (helpful new friends, hospitals, customs for the bikes), but our travel insurance said we had 48 hours from the accident to decide if we were going to use our medical evacuation option to get a covered flight home. The closest MRI machine was 1000km away and Jackie still couldn’t walk, so we decided with the clock ticking that going home was best. We’re currently in Frankfurt airport, waiting for our 3rd flight.

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If we’re lucky, Jackie’s knee will be good enough for us to return to the trip in a couple weeks. If not, then we definitely made the right choice to come home. We’ll try to get up more of the story when we’re home and let you know what happens next.

Mechanical Problems Cont. – Day 4

Day 4 – Loire Valley to Limoges:
Today was the day we finally figured out what was wrong with my bike, and this was mostly thanks to Bjarne at Glejbjerg Motorcycles in Denmark.

First, we thought we needed better coolant in the bike, but we didn’t know why the battery was dead. Then, Aron figured out that it was probably a bad thing that we had air in the coolant line (from our roadside repair), but we weren’t sure what to do about this.

So we called Bjarne, who diagnosed all of our problems over Skype. First, he confirmed that air in the coolant line is a bad thing. He told us to stand the bike upright, drain the coolant, add new coolant, and rock it from side to side to get the air out. Then we should start the bike with the radiator cap open to make sure it isn’t a head gasket problem (if bubbles keep coming up, you’re in trouble), close to cap, run the bike for 10mins, and we should be fine. This is when we told him that we can’t start the bike (although we had been charging the battery with the solar panel so the battery had a bit more life in it). We explained that none of the lights worked, and he quickly figured out that we must have blown a main fuse. And suddenly, everything made sense!

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Here’s what had happened: The plastic on the coolant filter was old and broke. We did a roadside repair but we left some air in the coolant line so it wasn’t being effective. Then we did another repair where we added the new filter, but we didn’t get the air out again, so the coolant system was running incredibly inefficiently. As a result, the bike was running very, very hot. So hot, that it blew one of the main fuses and started to drain the battery – hence the reason none of the lights worked and the bike wouldn’t start.

So, we bought a new fuse, installed the coolant the proper way, and we seem to be good to go! It took us four days to solve the problem (and we managed to magnify the problem in the process), but overall we believe it’s fixed and we’ve been able to continue our journey. Tusind tak til Bjarne, who really helped us figure out how to fix the bike!

Mechanical problems intro
Day 1

Day 2
Day 3

Mechanical Problems Cont. – Day 3

Day 3 – Paris to the Loire Valley:
We swapped the old filter with the new filter and left Paris, heading south. Throughout the trip, I noticed that my bike was running pretty hot, and my right leg was very warm. It seemed to work, though, so we continued.

Then we stopped on the side of the road to buy cherries. When we were ready to leave again, my bike wouldn’t start. I turned the key in my ignition, and none of my lights turned on. We took out the multimeter and checked my battery. It was at 12.11 volts – way too low.

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We were baffled. How was my battery dead? I had a new battery, and we checked the charging system in Denmark. What happened? We couldn’t figure it out, and I suggested we try to push start my bike. We weren’t expecting much given that the entire electrical system seemed to be dead, but surprisingly, it worked! So, with my bike started again, we plugged the battery into our solar panel and hit the road.

During the drive, my right leg was incredibly hot. I could barely keep my leg close to the bike. After about an hour of driving, we found a nice hotel that we wanted to stay at. As we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed the overheating light on my bike came on. This was not a good sign. So we shut off the bike and went to sleep baffled. My battery was dead. My whole electrical system seemed to be dead (except for the over temperature warning light). And my bike was overheating, so the replacement filter and coolant didn’t seem to be working. We were stumped, and didn’t know what to do.

To be continued…

Mechanical problems intro
Day 1

Day 2
Day 4

Mechanical Problems Cont. – Day 2

Day 2 – Paris:
We arrived in Paris and looked for a Kawasaki dealership. We found one not too far from where we were staying, and went there early in the morning. It turns out this dealership was actually a showroom and they didn’t have any parts. The guy there directed us to the parts store, and he also gave them a call to ask if they had the filter we needed. He got off the phone and told us, “It’s not possible,” and that it would take 7-10 days to get the right filter.

Plotting how we could order this filter in advance and get it further down in our route, we decided to visit the parts store anyways. It was close to the periphery of the city, but we eventually found it. We walked in and showed the broken filter to the guy behind the counter. Two minutes later, he came back with a genuine Kawasaki replacement filter! We were very excited that we finally found the part, and so we bought two – just in case Aron’s bike has the same problem.

To be continued…

Mechanical problems intro
Day 1
Day 3
Day 4

Mechanical Problems Cont. – Day 1

After I returned to Aron with an improvised filter and tubing for my motorcycle, I thought our problems would be solved. I was far from right. Four days later, though, and we finally have a solution. The long saga will be posted in 4 posts (one for each day).

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Day 1 (continued from the last post) – side of the road in Belgium (on the border with France):
We installed the improvised filter, filled the bike with coolant, and started it up. The book told us to wait a bit to make sure everything was ok. It’s a good thing we waited, because the improvised filter couldn’t handle the heat of the warm coolant and it melted, too. So, the next step was to drive to another motorcycle shop and try to find the proper filter, or a bit of tubing that we could use instead of a filter.

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I hopped on Aron’s motorcycle, Melton Constable, to drive to the next closest motorcycle shop. The shop that the Suzuki dealer told me about was called Hobby Moto, and it was about 15 mins away on the highway (only one exit away, but it was a long exit). So I left Aron sitting on the side of the road and headed off. It wasn’t until I was on the highway that I realized I had forgotten my wallet. However, I was very nearly at the Hobby Moto area, so I decided to get off the highway and find the shop, just in case they could help me quickly or tell me I needed to go elsewhere. Plus, I had only gone one long exit on the highway and I didn’t have much of a choice. Turning around would required getting off at the same exit. The time was 3:30pm on a Friday.

I got off the highway and tried to find Hobby Moto. I pulled into a Honda dealership, and a very friendly guy who spoke perfect English (rare for this part of the country) gave me excellent directions. He also told me they didn’t have the part I needed. So I hopped back on my bike and drove to Hobby Moto, which turned out to just be the name of the shop in a Yamaha dealership.

When I entered the building, I saw about 5 people waiting at the counter. Two were being helped. Three were waiting like me. I waited for 5 minutes. One person finished up and left. Then the person behind the counter disappeared. I waited another 5 minutes. No progress on either front. I waited another 5 mins, and still nothing had changed – the first person was helping one customer, and the second person disappeared. The time was about 4pm, and I was worried that I would get to the front of the line, find the part, and then not be able to pay. So I left, intending to drive quickly back to Aron to get my wallet and then return. I went to get on the highway to go the one exit back to Aron, but due to all the construction in the area, the highway entrance ramp was closed. The next closest exist was several miles in the wrong direction, and I ended up very lost. After what was an incredibly frustrating time (in which I spent most of it cursing the poor, unmarked road detours in French-speaking Belgium), I finally got back to Aron, retrieved my wallet, and returned to Hobby Moto. It was 4:45pm

And then I waited again. I was 3rd in line at the counter. I finally spoke to an employee, who looked at my broken filter, told me they didn’t have it (which I expected) and then spent another 1 hour and 15mins look at my bike, looking for the filter in the bike, calling nearby Kawasaki dealerships, telling me it wasn’t possible to find the part I needed, and finally selling me a very thin walled rubber tube to use as a replacement (without the filter). They were very friendly and were trying to be helpful, but there weren’t going to be able to help me and it dragged on and on. By this point, there were 15-20 people behind me. It was quite possibly the slowest customer service I’ve ever experienced.

I left frustrated and angry. It was 5:45pm, I had no useable parts, and shops closed for the weekend at 6pm. So I returned to the Honda dealership again, and spoke to someone there. Luckily, the first guy I spoke to understood the problem, knew he couldn’t get the filter, and suggested using a strong tubing as a temp fix (which is what Aron suggested). He brought out his mechanic who looked at my bike and found me exactly the type of double-walled tube that I needed. The barb fittings on my bike that the tube needed to connect to were not the same size, and the mechanic knew this so he gave me zip ties to make the tubing fit both barbs. And he gave me all of this for free. It was exactly what I needed, and I probably could have solved all of this without going back for my wallet. Alas.

I finally returned to Aron, we installed the good tubing, and hit the road to Paris, 6 hours later than expected. We made it to Paris safely. I did notice, however, that my right leg got very hot on the long ride.

To be continued…

Mechanical problems intro
Day 2

Day 3
Day 4

Mechanical Problems – On the Side of the Road in Belgium

For those of you who thought that yesterday’s post about soup was indicative of of a low key and uneventful journey, here is something I wrote on Friday:

I’m sitting on the sidewalk on a nice neighborhood street in St. Ghislain, Belgium (just west of Mons, neither of which are places I’d every heard of). Since Jackie is the one that speaks French, I am the one sitting by a disabled motorcycle (specifically Jackie’s Holt) and a greenish puddle with sticky hands from a fine mist of coolant.

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It’s very peaceful compared to  20 minutes ago when steam was spraying out of a ruptured plastic cylinder. I think it’s some sort of filter in the coolant system, but I don’t know why it isn’t just a tube and my repair book and it’s scant 6 pages on the cooling system seem to gloss over the part’s very existence. Luckily the part burst while we were pulled over and looking at maps and not while riding down the highway, so Jackie was able to jump off the bike immediately instead of having to pull over while her leg was being steamed. Jackie just called to say she’s waiting at a Suzuki dealer (we have Kawasaki’s, but hey, at least it’s a motorcycle shop) for the mechanic to come back from lunch.

Part 2:
Jackie called again saying they didn’t have the right part, but gave us a list of other motorcycle shops to check in the area. On my suggestion I asked her to just get a length of tube to bypass the filter and some coolant and she ended up coming back with an improvised filter and tube setup that should do the job. Plumbing is plumbing. I read up on the proper procedure to flush and refill the coolant and we should be up and running again soon. We will most certainly miss checking in by 5pm with our airbnb host in Paris, so that’s our next challenge. We also won’t do step 18 of the coolant replacement procedure, “Dispose the old coolant in an environmentally-safe manner,” unless the involuntary puddle under the bike counts.

To be continued… (but to relieve the suspense, I will let you know that this is being posted from Paris with two working motorcycles parked outside)

Mechanical Problems Update #2 – Fixed!

Today we returned to the mechanic to check out Aron’s bike, Melton Constable. He (the mechanic, not Melton) had ordered a new head gasket, and was waiting for it to come in so he could replace it and make sure the bike sounded normal again.

As we pulled into the parking area, Melton Constable was parked outside – which is always a good sign! It looks like removing the soot, fixing the timing, and replacing the broken doohickey did the trick, and the bike is running great! We rode them both home today.

Overall, there were a number of repairs – both big and small – that were done on the bikes. It wasn’t particularly cheap to do all this work, but if it avoid problems on the road, it was definitely worth it and the price was very fair for the amount of work. Bjarne at Glebjerg Motorservice did a really fantastic job helping us out. He did a thorough sweep of the bikes, and caught everything that needed fixing: from the worn-out chain and sprocket to the small cracked dust seals on our brakes. Plus Aron and his dad got to help out with a number of the repairs.

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We’ll likely have a few more mechanical challenges on the road. But without Bjarne’s help and all of these repairs, we probably wouldn’t have made it out of Europe! We’re excited to hit the road in a few days feeling confident that our bikes are starting the trip in good mechanical shape.

Mechanical Problems Update

The mechanic started exploring the head of the engine to find the cause of the problem with the valves making contact. Apparently the improper timing was causing poor combustion which resulted in over 2mm of soot building up on the top face of the piston. The valves were making contact with this soot and luckily not with the hard metal face of the piston. The timing is now fixed, and it seems like the valves are not bent. Getting into the head of the engine means that we need a new head gasket, but once that comes in tomorrow, everything should be fixed and just needs some reassembly. We’re hoping that it works and then we’ll update you all again.