Adventure Interview: Mihai Barbu

One of the most inaccurate assumptions about travel is that it cannot, or even worse, should not be done with children. People think that it is too risky, or difficult, or irresponsible to immerse their kids in a foreign culture, and so they vacation to places just like home, filled with people just like them. The funny thing is though, that no matter which country you’re from this stigma remains the same. We’re reluctant to bring our children to the places others are reluctant to take them out of, and the cycle continues from generation to generation. We hope to do our part in changing this pattern by sharing stories of parents who instill a love of the world and a sense of adventure in their kids from a young age. These aren’t families with large trust funds, immense sponsorship, or even a job that lets them work from the road; but instead people who just want to encourage others to get out and see the world as they have.

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This particular interview is with Mihai Barbu, a Romanian in his thirties who took his girlfriend and son around Europe in a Ural. For many of us their journey would be the trip of a lifetime, but these three insist that it was just a summer vacation for their son, one which they hope will plant a seed of understanding for the rest of his life.

Scotland.

  1. Tell us about you and your family. What do you do for a living, and how long have you been travelers?

I’m Mihai Barbu, 36, from Bucharest Romania and I’m a professional freelance photographer. I used to be a press photographer for 11 years, and I worked for various national newspapers and international news agencies. Commercial photography is mostly what I do now, but press photography remains my one true love. Oana, my girlfriend (we’re not married) is 33 and she used to be an accountant, but ever since our summer adventure she had to quit and for the moment she’s unemployed. Vladimir, our son, is 5 now. We do not consider ourselves “travelers” in the professional sense of the word. We like to travel, and we like returning home as well.

Endless roads in Finland.

  1. What inspired you to take this trip and why did you do it on a Ural?

Last summer’s trip wasn’t my first big getaway. Besides some “small” rides in and around Romania on a solo bike, I travelled from Romania to Mongolia and back alone in 2009 on a 2000 BMW F650GS Dakar (named Doyle). It took me almost four months and 26,000kms, and I rode through 13 countries. There’s also a book about it called “Vand Kilometri” (“I sell kilometers”), that sold around 10.000 copies so far, so I’ve had my taste of travel on two solo bikes. Then Vladimir came into our lives, and guess what; it seemed I needed an extra seat on the bikes.

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It was that moment when the idea of buying a sidecar came into my mind. I evaluated the options and the Ural won. I must say, I especially love its classic look. I decided to buy a new bike, something I’ve never done before. I wanted it new, because the only reason we got it was to keep us away from home for as long as possible. The big difference this time was that we had a four year-old with us and the last thing I wanted was for the bike to break. I know, most of the people say that if you want a bike that won’t break so often, you don’t buy a Ural. I know it has a bad reputation, but that is really a thing of the past, now I can say that for sure.

Ireland, Wild Atlantic Way.

  1. Why did you chose the route you did, specifically, what encouraged you to wander around these more developed countries instead of more remote locations?

The thing is… I didn’t. Well, at least in the first place I didn’t. What we knew before we left was that we had all summer and that’s about it. I told my friends we’ll try to stay on the road for as long as possible, I dreamed of zig-zagging through all of Europe, but I also told them that we might be back in two weeks’ time. And then we left. I thought we should head North, as none of us had ever been there, it’s summer and the weather might just be a little colder up there. It turned out it was a bit colder than expected, but we got over that with some clothes we bought along the way.

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So we rode through the Baltic states, Scandinavia, Nordkapp, and by the time we reached Denmark I thought… how about we try to pass through as many countries as we can so Vladimir can say that he’s been through almost all of Europe when he was four? I know it’s stupid to enter a country for half an hour and get out, but I never tell people we “saw” Europe, I just say “we passed through it”. We chose Europe for a simple reason. I always called what we did, as strange as it may sound, “a warm-up tour”. It was our first big journey as a family, Europe is safe, full of Ural dealers, and our new bike had an international warranty. Besides, Europe is beautiful.

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  1. What is it like traveling with children, does it change your travel style?

Ok, it’s not like traveling solo, but it’s much easier than it looks. The thing I want to underline is that I don’t think Vladimir is a special kid in any way. He’s a usual child, he loved it, and I can bet my bikes that any child in the world would love to travel like that. It may be hard to believe, but between the three of us Vladimir was the coolest. It was like he’d done it before and he was the one taking us on a sidecar trip. He never, not even once, asked when do we go home, and I think that the reason behind it is a very simple one. He got to do what most of the kids these days scarcely do, stay 24/7 for four months with his parents. He WAS home.

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Camping and cooking in France.

  1. The thought of extended travel with children can be a daunting concept to many people, do you have any advice for parents contemplating a similar undertaking?

We’re the proof that it’s possible, I guess. I’m not saying everyone should get in a sidecar and ride on, no. Like any other big journey, you have to be prepared. There’s always one thing you cannot control, and I always say this when asked about the ingredients for a perfect trip, and that is luck. More than that though, before leaving you have to do all that is in your power to minimize the things you’re leaving in the hands of luck. And yes, we were lucky. Not a single emergency, no major bike breakdowns, not a single headache in four months.

Doonagore castle, Ireland.

Camping and cooking in Poland.

  1. We find that we usually learn something new on every trip we take. What were the biggest lessons you learned from this trip?

I never try to give any philosophical meanings to my travels. I think that traveling is a normal thing, and I think it’s the best thing to do while busy living in this world. We owe this to our planet, to our home, to see it with eyes wide open. So if there’s one thing I learn over and over again, it’s that I’m doing it right.

Dalmatian Coast, Montenegro.

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  1. Travel is full of surprises and unexpected problems. What was your worst day or biggest challenge along the way?

As I said earlier, it went really smooth. Ok, we had kind of not so nice weather. If you cut Europe in half, well, the upper part was colder that we were initially prepared for. And wet, oh.. wet. And strangely, the driving style in Morocco. I hate highways, and the Ural hates them more than me, but I ended up looking for them just for safety concerns. I kind of feared the Moroccan drivers.

Sand storm in the Sahara desert, Morocco.

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  1. On that same note, what was your biggest or most pleasant surprise or accomplishment on the trip?

The biggest surprise was the trip itself. I’m glad we managed to ride it through, all the way, with nothing stopping us. I must confess, looking at the pictures now make it all look like a dream. Got to do it again, I guess, just to be sure it was really us.

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Atlantic Road, Norway.

  1. Would you do anything differently if you could do it all over again?

I don’t know. The only downside of the whole thing is that, as I said, we didn’t see as much as we wanted. 41 one countries in 4 months is a lot. We have to stick to the thought that we only saw a small part of Europe. It was when we got to London, and could stay for just three days due to ferry schedules, that we said we’ll avoid other big cities along the way. To be in London for the first time for only three days is a crime. We left the city feeling that we barely got to smell it. So we stuck to our plan and went around all the other big cities along the way. Europe’s capitals are just a plane ticket away, and one should stay there for a week to feel the place. Basically from my point of view, this tour is anything but complete.

Adding the last sticker on our pannier.

Wild camping in Finland.

Alright, now that we’ve asked a bunch of basic questions is there anything else you want to tell the readers?

First, some thoughts on travelling with a four year old child through 41 countries in a sidecar. There were lots of comments on the web stating that he will not remember any of it. Okay true, he might not, although the difference between our generations is the fact that they have tons of pictures to help them remember. The other thing is, whether he remembers it or not really does not matter. I did this only to plant the travel seed in my child. I want him to grow up with a need to see the world, a desire to know its places and people. I feel there are no bad people that travel, and it’s just a strong brick in his foundation as a good person. Oh, and I think I did a good job, I have some hints about it. Since we got back, Vladimir hasn’t told anyone about it. Not his colleagues in the kindergarten, not the kids outside our house, not relatives, no one. He never told anyone about seeing the Scandinavian reindeer, playing with wild monkeys in Morocco, riding camels in the Sahara desert, or even meeting Santa in person, in his village in Finland. I think he does not bring it about because he thinks it’s normal, and if he grows up feeling that seeing the world is a normal thing, then I’m a happy father.

Camel riding in Merzouga, Morocco.

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Second, and I don’t believe what I am about to say is that memorable, I want to leave a few things here at the end. I want to answer a question we’ve been asked and that we’ll probably hear again: Why? Not because we can, but because as weird as it may seem, it is the normal thing to do. Or if it’s easier to digest, because it should be the normal thing to do. Well, hell, at least I think so.

Sedlo Pass, Montenegro.

I once said Romania as a country has a problem when it comes to travel, although “problem” may not be the word. We grew up under a regime that taught us leaving the country wasn’t done, and we took that to heart. We learned it so well that we pass it on to our children without realizing it. We’re slowly sneaking a peak, a little skiing in Austria, a little beach in Greece, but that is not the travel I am talking about, because that is, if you’ll excuse me, a holiday not traveling. I am talking about the kind of experience no travel agency can provide. I am talking about the smell and taste of food cooked near a tent, about nights spent beneath the stars, about the man whose door you knock on to ask if you can hang out in his orchard, about different vistas each day.

Camping in Montenegro.

I want Vladimir to want to see the world. I want him to see it this way, as it is, not as a tourist’s guide paints it. I want him to be curious. I don’t know, nobody knows whether he will grow up the way I want him to. I don’t know what and how much he will remember from this holiday fourteen years from now, but I want to know that I have laid this brick in his foundation. It was our single hidden wish when we set out to conquer Europe. I found myself at camp sites watching as Vladimir played so nicely with little ones from other countries. I’m fascinated by how well these kiddos can get along without even sharing the same language. How they can play for hours, chat and be happy while I cannot get directions from the man I stopped to ask. These were some of the moments where I told myself that yes, we are doing the right thing, that the brick I was talking about is there, ready to support the foundation of a good person.

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The entire story boils down to “Vladimir’s summer vacation”, nothing more. To those of you who are waiting for a book in the near future, we say with gratitude and affection, don’t. It was a family vacation shared to the extent that we were able, with its joys, experiences, and selfies. The only downside, if there is one, is that we have seen too little. There was so much going on and so little time, it would be silly to say we have seen Europe. From the bottom of our hearts we want to thank the people who made their homes ours, friends old and new. We think a lot about each one of you. A lot.

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Third, people who are dreaming of doing the same sort of trip ask three questions repeatedly. The first is where did you get money? The answer is simple. It wasn’t by working, as would have perhaps been normal, but by getting a bank loan. A loan my mother got, because I wasn’t employed. The second question is where did you get the time? The answer was even simpler. I was let go from work, I had all the time in the world. Honestly, what is keeping you from getting yourself fired? The third question used to always disarm me. It was more of a statement than question, a crank in the wheel of freedom, a brake pedal on the way to self-fulfillment. It went, “That is fine for you, but I have a child.” Period. I didn’t have a child before so I was free to take as many loans and sign as many resignations as I pleased. I was lucky. That statement tore at me. Did it mean that if I wanted a child, a family, then that was the end? That I would be relegated to the all-inclusive, three weeks a year until the child turns 18? As it turns out, those who told me this were wrong. Now I know enough to tell you that making your child the cause of your impotence is wrong. It is ugly, abnormal, and unhealthy. If you are reading this, this is my belated answer. Probably not what you were expecting, but the map that Oana, Vladimir and I drew over the last four months does not allow for a different answer, no matter how hard I try to go easy on you. Trust us, it can be done.

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I would like it a lot if motorcycles were a part of Vladimir’s life. I would like him to say, as I do, that they are the best thing that happened to him. I would like him to enjoy them sooner than I did. I would also like him to have a good head on his shoulders while his ass is in the saddle. I do not believe in motorcycle accidents, but I believe in accidents. There is a saying I like, when you leave on two wheels for the first time you have a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The idea is to fill the one with experience before you empty the one with luck. The bad news is that you can never totally fill the experience bag.  More bad news is that luck is not something one makes himself. It is however, the only reason a journey succeeds. That’s my opinion, and that is part of the reason I believe in Vladimir’s luck.

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Whenever we stop and someone asks me something, Vladimir listens curiously before asking “What did they say, daddy, what did they say?” I whisper to him, “People have heard the world’s greatest motorcycle rider is traipsing around Europe and they were asking me if I had seen him. I told them I haven’t, I didn’t tell them it was you.”

Vladimir smiles approvingly like an accomplice to this secret and sees about his business. I smile every time, not because it is funny, but because I have never lied to my child. Not even now. After all, what other motorcycle rider do you know who calls his kindergarten to tell them he will be another month after three months of wondering across Europe?

 

Mihai Barbu is not only an amazing father, but a great photographer. If you enjoyed these photos then we encourage you to check out his other adventures at the following links.

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Stelvio Pass, Italy.

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Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Managing Editor.