Coming Back to America
By Marisa Notier
The Notier Notes
Our Sunday Scoop
Getting ourselves from Africa to America during a pandemic is hard enough. Getting our motorcycle across continents is even harder. But we were fortunate with the people who helped us, even though the entire process really tested our patience, and certainly emptied our wallets.
Starting with the motorcycle, there's a lot of things that can go wrong. When it comes to flying a motorcycle via airfreight, you don't actually know how much you're going to pay until the bike is crated up, has passed customs, and is ready to go on the plane. This is because the cost is based on the final dimensions of the crate which is hand-built around the bike. So we could only get estimates beforehand, and the numbers that people were getting back to us varied by thousands of dollars. Sometimes even the same clearing agent would change his price by a couple grand overnight due to some "unforeseen" cost.
I think I overestimate people's abilities to do math sometimes. In the US, even the most math-opposed employee will be given a spreadsheet that calculates the costs of a quote for him or her. But in Africa, where these spreadsheets seem to be rarely used, people are doing all the calculations by hand, and after double-checking their work, we frequently find discrepancies. Normally I don't mind when our bill is off for a restaurant meal or grocery payment, but when it comes to spending lots of money, these miscalculations are very disconcerting.
After weeks of negotiating with different agents, all with different competencies, we finally found the right one - Godfrey (Godfrey the Godsend I like to call him). He was able to get us accurate prices, and was honest about all the fees right from the beginning. We did a high estimate and a low estimate for flying the motorcycle, and felt satisfied about paying anywhere between the two.
Next was crating up the motorcycle and getting it cleared through customs. We brought the bike in days early just because we knew that these things would take a while, but we had no idea just how long they would take.
We figured crating up the motorcycle would take four hours maximum. It took eight.
We thought getting the bike through customs would be a two hour process. All in all, we were at the cargo area of the airport in Uganda for eleven hours. It's a good thing we brought the motorcycle in early!
Why did it take eight hours for a team of people to build a wooden box around a motorcycle? Well, part of the problem was that the crate makers did not have proper tools. They had one hammer that was a hammer head welded onto a pipe. They didn't have any power tools, and only a hand saw to cut their wood. Plus, all of their materials had been previously used, from the pallets to the wood to the nails. Ah yes, and the nails... since they were used, each one was rusty and crooked and had to be straightened out before every hammer swing. These people were certainly resourceful and skilled, but everything they did just took much longer than expected.
But despite all the disadvantages these Ugandan builders had, they did everything with a smile, and they really enjoyed their work. Tim was very insistent that they had to make the crate small, since we were paying by the crate's dimensions, and even though these were tight parameters, they did exactly as we asked. By the end of their work, the crate was even a few centimeters smaller than we had specified! So the quality of their craftsmanship was worth every extra hour, as we ended up paying our lowest estimated price!
Finally, the crate had to be x-rayed and scanned, which is normally done behind-the-scenes, but this time, Tim actually got the opportunity to go back there and watch them scan the bike. This was a very cool experience since it was a bit like one of those cartoon x-rays where the person walks behind a screen and turns into a skeleton. They put the bike into the scanner and the image that was relayed back looked like an artist's sketch of a motorcycle.
The video of it is pretty impressive, and you can check it out, along with the entire crating process, in the video below.
At last, the motorcycle was ready to fly out. We had done our mental checklist - windshield off, battery disconnected, practically no gas in the tank, all batteries and super glue taken out of the luggage... we were good to go.
And now we just had to get ourselves to Chicago as quickly as possible so that we could be there to pick up the bike when it landed.
We got another Covid test (this time in the throat as opposed to the nose, which was much better), and we said our goodbyes to the wonderful friends we had made in Uganda. Cathy, the owner of the hotel we were staying at, even drove us to the airport.
It's always bittersweet to be moving on, but this early end to our Africa trip was particularly bitter in that we had originally aspired to get all the way through Egypt. But of course, now we were leaving from the middle of Africa, and we were traveling by plane as opposed to overlanding. There was something sad about it all, like I could feel the heaviness of having not completed our great African journey like a weighty failure on my shoulders. But with Ethiopia closed, and a pandemic still shutting down borders around the world, we knew we really had no choice.
And so with a sadness in our hearts, and while trying to keep our chins up, we boarded our first plane that would bring us back home.
First we flew to Doha, Qatar, and that was a short five hour flight. But the direct flight from Qatar to Chicago was fifteen hours long! That's certainly the longest flight I'd ever been on, and we were extremely thankful that the plane wasn't completely full and we were able to have three seats to ourselves.
The view coming into Chicago was beautiful... the city skyscrapers looked like little lego pieces stacked beside the shimmering blue expanse of Lake Michigan. It was glorious, and it felt good to be home (though it's a little cold here for my liking).
Once on land again, we immediately got our vaccines, but have been feeling jet-lagged and fatigued ever since. We keep waking up at 3am, and then can't keep our eyes open after 5pm. Plus we're quarantining, which makes Mother's Day particularly hard since neither of us are going to be seeing our mothers today. We're so close, but still so far. But we know the time will soon come when we'll be able to see everyone without worry, and we're much closer to that moment than we were a few days ago from Africa.
We'll be picking up the motorcycle tomorrow! And then we plan on doing a few local adventures here in Illinois as the weather warms up, so stay tuned!
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