Helmets, gloves, gps devices, grips and essentially everything related to motorcycle use that requires touching is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental in Quito. It’s not as if these items weren’t wiped down before, but now, it is done with more frequency, fervor and efficiency, with microorganisms and the debatably nonliving viral particles in mind. Even the keys and keychain are sanitized.
Motorcycle touring and indeed, travel in general, has changed. But the reality is that if these tour operators want to stay open, these changes, both big and small, must be made.
Middle of the Earth
Mornings are typically a bustling scene at Ecuador Freedom Bike rental headquarters, with groups showing up for scheduled guided tours, couples arriving for their self-guided tours, briefings in the conference room with wall-sized maps, gear fittings, catapulted jokes by the staff, and spoiled-with-love dogs feeding off the excitement and hardly-earned doggie treats. On a morning like today, similar to other mornings during the time of Covid, things are a bit more subdued. Facial masks tend to muffle voices, no matter how boisterous the joke.
Ecuador has reopened its doors to tourism, requiring a negative COVID-19 test within 10 days of entry to the country. This includes those traveling from the USA, which is considered a “high-risk” country, from which many countries, including much of Europe, are barring entry. Protocols for safety and cleanliness are taken seriously, including at the various outdoor restaurants and comfortable accomodations the tour group has arranged. Masks must be worn in public places, hands should be washed often, and genuine consideration for not sharing your ‘respiratory droplets’ with others should be constant.
“All travellers are advised to wash their hands frequently or use a hand sanitizer; maintain a physical distance of at least one meter away from others if possible; wear a mask if they are unable to keep apart from other people; and if they have to cough or sneeze, to do so into a bent elbow or tissue that is disposed of in a closed bin.”
Too Hot to Handle
You can expect to have your temperature taken upon entry at most establishments, using one of those no-contact thermometer guns aimed at your forehead, neck, or wrist. In a big city, you may also see a thermal scanner but I hope your first time meeting one (if you haven’t already) is less embarrassing and perplexing than mine.
After tearing off my helmet in Colombia’s equatorial heat, the kind of hot weather that lurks around before a mid-day rain, I once got too close to a scanner, thereby setting off an emergency alarm. Instead of walking by it like a normal person, I went up and put my forehead as near to the lazer’s source as possible. Funny enough, it not only shows your thermal scan but also displays a live video of you on the screen, with the camera lens situated near the laser. So I got to observe myself close-up, completely mis-using the scanner and having no idea; so close that at one moment only my forehead took up the entire screen. The alarm went off after each attempt, alerting the entire business complex of my dangerously high temperature, complete with a flashing red light, likely the same color of my blushed face. Note that I felt fine and in fact, I just had my temperature checked not 10 minutes ago; it was normal.
The perplexity began when instead of telling me to walk further away from the device, so that the scanner could read my temperature from a distance, they told me that perhaps it was because I was hot from my riding gear and being in the sun. They suggested I stand off to the side and wait to cool down for a bit.
While standing off to the side, as recommended, I witnessed other people walking into the building just as they normally would. I wondered why they weren’t also going up to the scanner to get their temperature checked. This pondering caused me to immediately scold myself for being too quick to follow the rules—I should have ignored the scanner’s existence and indifferently waltzed by it like everyone else. After watching more people enter the building, I realized they were, indeed, having their bodies thermally scanned at a casual distance. I followed suit and lo and behold, my temperature read normal.
Did the employees also not know how it worked? Did they play a joke on me and laugh about it as soon as I walked away? I have to say, they seemed sincere in wanting to reassure me that if I just stayed still and cooled down in the shade, I’d be fine. I guess I’ll never know.
Oh, the strange and wondrous things that happen while traveling by motorcycle in foreign lands.
Watch Where You Step
In general, people are encouraged to bring their own helmets and gear for touring, otherwise there may be a cleaning fee for the items used. The bottom of your feet may be sprayed with disinfectant, or alternatively, you’ll be asked to step on a mat that serves the same purpose on your way in the door. Perhaps, like me, you feel pretty silly spraying down the soles of your boots with disinfectant while they’re still on your feet.
I find the whole situation humorous really, especially observing the chosen method of sole exposure by different people. I tend to turn around, bend one knee so that the heel of my foot moves towards my backside and the sprayer can mist away the bad guys at the upturned boot being presented. I like to do this without bracing myself, as a mini balance challenge for my own entertainment. I’ve seen other people, while facing the sprayer, bend the knee outwards to raise the sole of the foot towards the sprayer, resting their foot above the opposite knee, which always reminds me of how people check the bottom of their shoes for dog feces.
You might be wondering if coronavirus is something like those muddy tracks you’ve been yelled at for decorating the house with after a fun day on the trails. Well, it is, sort-of. A study came out in July 2020 showing that the virus was widely distributed throughout floors at a hospital in Wuhan. They determined that the virus could be tracked around on the soles of shoes because the floors inside the pharmacy also tested positive for the novel coronavirus, an area where no patients had gone. So, I suppose it is a safety step (and wipe) worth taking. But then again, you’d still have to touch the contaminated surface and then touch your eyes, face, or food (or other entry point into your body) to get an infection. How about we all agree to not lick the floor or practice handstands followed up by immediate face touching.
Time to Safely Enjoy
Booking a tour with an operator committed to Covid-19 safety protocols is a great way to save time, since all of the destinations and accommodations have already been scouted out and approved for your stay. Winging it is a bit more complicated during these times, if not utterly impossible, even when traveling within a relatively small geographic space. Knowing which places are open, require reservations in order to stagger the number of visitors, and are actually taking proper biosafety precautions takes a lot of research, all of which will be done for you in confidence on a booked tour with a reputable operator. Many tour operators are gearing to start back up in 2021 if they haven’t already.
If you are partial to having your own personal space, the consideration for this has amplified. Sharing air while standing in lines and in public places has potentially more risks, so that means more distance between each person. I’m not one for crowds so I’d tally this as a bonus, but unfortunately, this also means hugs and handshakes are out (which you are probably already doing without where you are). This is less of a hindrance if you happen to be motorcycle touring around cultures in which no-contact salutations are used, such as in Thailand or Nepal, where people wai or namaskar, respectively, to one another. It’s a beautiful gesture, really, made by bringing the palms together before the face or chest and slightly bowing. Perhaps a salutation we could adopt, unless you’re into awkward waving while standing socially distanced from one another.
Thailand, a country which extinguished the spread of the virus by reacting quickly and putting the experts (medical professionals) in charge has yet to open its borders to tourism. Brandon Cretu of Thailand Moto tours mention that “Covid has obviously put a halt on our tours for the time being. Due to Thailand’s restrictions on travel and the mandatory 2 week quarantine— tours this year or early 2021 look very unlikely.”
They are looking forward to better days in the “land of smiles” and tours to come later next year. If you happen to already be within its national boundaries, please enjoy some Thai food for us.
Nepal reopened its borders to tourists early November, just in time for Motorcycle Expeditions “Head Above the Clouds” tour. This motorcycle adventure in Nepal awaits as soon as you produce a negative Covid test result within the past 75 hours and book your trip.
Word on the Street
When asked about the changes to motorcycle travel in Ecuador, Michele Merizalde Ayala of Motohell, a dual-sport motorcycle repair shop in Quito, said that exploring her home country was like a completely new experience.
“One of the biggest advantages for me was finding a place, such as the Hacienda Andalusia [the historic ranch on the base of the Chimborazo volcano], which is normally full of people, totally empty. We had the entire place to ourselves.”
She also mentioned that it seemed motorcyclists were getting further out to the mountains and rural areas, undoubtedly seeking to disconnect themselves from the cement city cages they’ve been locked down in for so many months.
Motorcycle traveler, Paolo Catteneo, said “The biggest change I have noticed while traveling is that every country has a different approach to COVID and preventive measures. In this sense, there’s always a variable in regards to people’s behavior towards the pandemic, but somehow there is an underlying general conduct that is widely accepted, such as wearing a mask and avoiding contact with people.”
Perhaps nothing more important, it was the loss of human connection that Cattaneo found most challenging. He described how people are now reluctant to approach foreigners, due to fear of contracting the virus. Paolo spent the lockdown in Greece before finally returning to Italy, his home country.
If, like me, you happen to be in Colombia during the pandemic, you’d have noticed an abundance of military personnel at official road checks to say hello to. For a while, only those with permits were allowed to move about, which I began doing after three months of utter stillness. Late July restarted my travels on Colombia’s nearly empty roads, where I was stopped often at aforementioned checkpoints, especially on roads leading to and from small towns. After so much time in isolation, a simple request to see documents felt like a legitimate human interaction. Colombians is general are incredibly friendly and almost always willing to chat, so even as a foreigner I am still approached often, but now always by those wearing “tapabocas” (face masks).
Colombia no longer requires a negative Covid test for entry, but you do have to fill out an online form if you plan on flying in from one of the limited international flights.
Elephant Moto Tours, the official partner of BMW Motorrad in Colombia, has scheduled their last long guided trip of the year starting December 5th. This is a half-paved, half-dirt tour through the Colombian Andes Mountains, departing from the high-altitudes of Bogotá (2,640 meters or 8,660 ft).
Some riders out of the US recently arrived to join Moto Dreamer Tours’ 16 day Andes Expedition Colombia tour, leaving out of the salsa dancing capital, the spicy city of Cali. To be fair, I know nothing of the salsa clubs or dancing first hand and they are likely strange and macabre with masks on (I’m not sure whether Latin salsa could or should ever be sanitized).
Treat your reusable face masks like underwear. Yes, I’m aware strange images may have been conjured in your mind, but what I mean is that you should pack reusable masks the same way you pack your underwear— with the intention of wearing a clean one each day.
Let’s Not be Listless
For the list lovers, traveling during the time of corona means:
- Avoiding crowds, staying socially distanced
- Getting COVID-tested
- Choosing outdoor restaurants and settings as much as possible
- Not traveling if you have symptoms
- Bringing: masks, sanitizer and sanitizing wipes (avoid plastic waste by making your own with recycled paper towels)
Take Responsibility for Your Choices
Consider that if you’re riding into a sparse mountain town or other non-crowded areas, while taking proper precautions, it’s possible that you may end up more isolated on your road trip than you are in your normal life at home.
At some point, many of us are going to choose to accept some risk. Ideally, we should protect the vulnerable by asking them to shield themselves as much as possible, where the rest of us may be ready to get on with our lives. We should also take other aspects of our health into consideration, such as psychological health. Just like previously known coronaviruses, it seems this one is here to stay. Getting out for a motorcycle tour in the time of Covid, regardless of whether that is within or beyond your country’s borders, may be exactly what you need.
For the latest travel warnings and alerts around the world, read about lockdowns and border restrictions.